Domestic violence: a legal primer for those in abusive relationships

DomabuseIt may once have been a behind-closed-doors taboo, but thankfully times have changed and as a society we are now more willing to acknowledge the hard realities of domestic violence – albeit often reluctantly and unsteadily. Sometimes domestic violence spills onto our streets. Sometimes it lands in the headlines. Sometimes cases come before the courts, although perhaps not as frequently as they should.

For victims, domestic violence is a horrible violation, of the trust and sense of safety that should be inherent in time spent with your spouse or partner. Many victims are women, but male victims  are all too often overlooked.

Sometimes the violence escalates beyond  bandages, bruises and trips to the casualty ward. Two women every week are killed by a current or former partner.

Divorce lawyers hear stories of violence practically every day of the week, told to them by women and men who seek help in the form of non-molestation orders and occupation orders on family homes. It is relatively common to meet bruised and battered victims with bitten faces or broken jaws, in need of urgent help.

If you are unlucky enough to have been a victim, you should be aware that that family lawyers are not permitted to breach professional privilege. This means that what you tell your lawyer remains within those four walls. Confidentiality is assured.

Remember: a leopard never changes its spots. No matter how hard it is and no matter how many excuses you make, my advice is straightforward. Get out – and if you have children, then you have even more reason to leave. Don’t kid yourself. It is nonsense to say that you are staying put for the sake of the children. You should remove them from this abusive relationship as quickly as you can.

Try to find the strength to do it – but if you cannot, at least try and find someone professional who can help you.

Domestic violence can – and should – add a real sense of urgency. If you go looking for a divorce, you usually only  do so after considering every possible alternative and reaching a reasoned, but painful conclusion that life cannot go on as it is.  Emergency orders, on the other hand, are, by their very nature obtained at a time of great need. If you seek an emergency order, you do so out of panic and fear.

The legal process is designed to assist quickly. Family lawyers are trained to work speedily and outside of normal office hours.  The court system, too, is geared to process emergency order applications as swiftly as possible: the process can be completed within a day.

There are two principal types of emergency order. A non-molestation order prohibits the abuser from molesting you or, in certain circumstances, your children. The abuser may not damage or dispose of your possessions. The abuser may not instruct anyone else to harass, intimidate or use violence against you. Such an order is relatively easy to obtain.

An occupation order, on the other hand, prevents your abuser from remaining in your home or coming near it. It may also order the abuser to stay in restricted parts of the house, or to let you enter the property if he or she has locked you out. Such an order may be sought if the relationship is characterised by extreme violence, or if the abuser’s presence causes immense distress to you or your children. Please note that even if an occupation order is in place, the court can order the abuser to continue paying the rent, mortgage or utility bills.

A person who breaches an order has committed a criminal offence and can be jailed for contempt. In certain cases the police can be ordered to arrest them immediately and bring them before the court.

If you are abused and battered, the law is there to help you and to keep you as safe as possible. The police should be contacted immediately; at the very least they will ensure that there is no breach of the peace. In serious cases they will begin criminal proceedings against the aggressor.

One major criticism of the system is that those who experience violence may receive little or no obvious back-up from the police, even if an order is not in place. The stock phrase? “Go and get an order, love; there is nothing we can do without it”. A desperate woman will not know whether this is true or false. In fact it is false.

Legal remedies do work, but only when you are fiercely committed to them and you are determined to see everything through. Capitulation and a “fresh start” may seem like the easy way out – but only until the next time. My advice to those who are suffering is to think positively and to do something about it now. The next time may be the last time.

Marilyn Stowe

The senior partner at Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers with clients throughout the country, in Europe, the Far East and the USA.

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