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What is domestic abuse?

Domestic abuse, also known as ‘domestic violence’, ‘DV’, or ‘intimate partner violence’, is generally an incident or pattern of incidents of abusive behaviour. Domestic abuse isn’t just physical abuse. It can also take other forms. Anyone can suffer from domestic abuse and anyone can be an abuser.

For the purposes of legal prohibitions and remedies, the law defines domestic abuse slightly differently in different parts of the UK. 

Domestic abuse in England and Wales

The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 defines domestic abuse as abusive behaviour where the victim and abuser are both aged 16 or above and are personally connected to each other. 

For the purposes of this Act, 2 people are personally connected if they:

  • are spouses or civil partners

  • are ex-spouses or ex-civil partners

  • are in an intimate relationship with each other (eg dating, cohabiting or engaged)

  • have (or at had) parental responsibility for the same child 

  • are family members (eg parent and child)

Under this Act, ‘abusive’ behaviour can be:

  • physical or sexual abuse

  • violent or threatening behaviour

  • controlling behaviour (eg making someone feel dependent on the abuser or tracking someone’s movements)

  • coercive behaviour (eg humiliation or intimidation)

  • economic abuse (ie controlling how someone spends, earns, or maintains money and property, or how they obtain goods or services.)

  • psychological, emotional or other abuse (eg verbal abuse, undermining someone’s confidence, or gaslighting)

Domestic abuse in Scotland

The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 defines domestic abuse as behaviour that is abusive of someone’s partner or ex-partner (ie their spouse, civil partner or unmarried partner). Abusive behaviour can be directed towards the victim or the victim’s children or at another person (eg the victim’s current partner).

Further, a reasonable person must consider the behaviour to be likely to cause the victim, their child, or another person physical or psychological harm (including fear, alarm and distress). Moreover, for a behaviour to be considered domestic abuse, the abuser must either:

  • intend to cause the victim physical or psychological harm through their behaviour, or

  • be reckless as to whether their behaviour causes the victim physical or psychological harm 

Under this Act, abusive behaviour includes behaviour that:

  • is violent, threatening or intimidating 

  • makes the victim dependent on, or subordinate to, the abuser

  • isolates the victim from their support system (eg friends and family)

  • controls, regulates or monitors the victim’s day-to-day activities

  • deprives or restricts the victim’s freedom of action

  • frightens, humiliates, degrades or punishes the victim

In England, Wales, and Scotland, domestic abuse also covers harassment, stalking, female genital mutilation, forced marriage (ie when someone is forced into a marriage), and honour-based abuse (ie when someone is punished for doing things that are considered to go against their traditional beliefs or culture).

For more information on different types of abusive behaviours in relationships, see the Women’s Aid website.

What are the effects of domestic abuse?

Domestic abuse has significant and wide-ranging effects on individuals and families alike. These effects encompass physical harm, psychological distress, emotional turmoil and social isolation. 

Physically, it can lead to injuries and even long-term health problems. Mentally, it can result in low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Emotionally, survivors of domestic abuse often experience fear, guilt, shame, and emotional numbness. Socially, they may be isolated from friends and family and face financial dependence. 

The impact on children in abusive households is also profound. These effects can persist and affect a child’s abilities to trust and form healthy relationships. The cycle of abuse can be difficult to break. 

It's essential to recognise that domestic abuse is never the fault of the victim, and seeking help and support is crucial for healing and recovery.

Leaving an abusive relationship

If you’re experiencing domestic abuse and/or are afraid of, or feel controlled by, a partner, ex-partner, or family member, you should consider seeking free, confidential support and advice.

If you want to leave an abusive relationship you may consider:

Finding a safe place to stay

To get out of an abusive situation, you (and your children) may need somewhere safe to stay. If you want to remain in your home, you may need to get legal protection to keep the abuser away (eg by getting a restraining order or an occupation order). If you can’t (or don’t want to) remain in your home, may be able to:

  • stay with relatives or friends - ideally somewhere where your abuser cannot find you or will not contact you

  • stay in a refuge - refuges provide safe places for people experiencing domestic abuse (and their children) to stay and think about what to do next. In England and Wales, women can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline for help and men can contact the Men’s Advice Line. In Scotland, the Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline can help anybody

  • get emergency accommodation from your local authority - local authorities have to provide accommodation to certain people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness within the next 8 weeks. You will typically be considered legally homeless if you cannot reasonably occupy your home because of the risk of domestic abuse. Check whether you qualify for emergency accommodation in England, Wales or Scotland

  • rent privately - it may be difficult to find private rented accommodation at short notice. However, privately renting may give you more housing security and give you time to plan your departure. Note that private renting laws are different in England, Wales and Scotland

Filing a police report

Many types of domestic abuse amount to criminal offences and the police may be able to arrest, caution or charge the abuser. Most UK police stations have a specifically trained Domestic Violence or Community Safety Unit to help in these types of situations.

To report domestic violence to the police, you can call 999 (if an emergency) or 101 (in a non-emergency). Alternatively, you can go to your closest police station and file a report in person.

It will be for the police to decide whether or not to arrest your abuser. If the police decides:

  • to make an arrest - the abuser will either be kept in custody or released on bail

  • not make an arrest - you may still be able to get protection from the courts (see below for more information)

The police or the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will decide whether to prosecute the abuser. This decision is based on the offence they committed. Note that, if they are prosecuted, you may have to go to court.

In England and Wales, the police can also make an interim domestic violence protection notice to provide short-term protection to a victim of domestic abuse. 

Getting legal protection

If you’re experiencing domestic violence, you can ask the court to:

  • stop your abuser from harming or threatening you

  • get your abuser to leave your home or stop them from coming back

For more information on these orders and how to apply for them, read Domestic violence legal remedies.

What is the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme?

In England and Wales, the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (DVDS), also known as ‘Clare’s Law’, gives anyone the right to ask the police about someone’s potentially abusive background. It is designed to provide people with information that can help them make informed decisions about their safety in a relationship and whether they wish to continue the relationship.

There are 2 main components to Clare's Law:

  • the right to ask - individuals can make a formal request to the police to disclose information about someone’s previous history of domestic violence or abusive behaviour. The police will assess the request and, if deemed necessary, provide relevant information

  • the right to know - the police can proactively disclose information about an individual's violent or abusive history to someone they believe may be at risk. Disclosure is made when there is a concern for the safety and well-being of a potential victim

You can make a request for yourself or on behalf of someone else (eg to find out whether a friend’s partner has previously been abusive).

In Scotland, such requests can be made under the Disclosure Scheme for Domestic Abuse Scotland (DSDAS).

For more information, see the government’s guidance on Clare’s Law and the Scottish government’s guidance. For more advice and support in situations involving domestic violence, see the Citizens Advice guidance for England, for Wales and for Scotland.

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