COVID-19 and domestic abuse: launch of legal challenge against UK government for failing to provide adequate accommodation
Louise Heath
Southall Black Sisters and the Public Interest Law Centre launched a legal challenge against the housing and communities secretary on 27 April for failure to provide emergency funding for adequate accommodation for domestic abuse survivors during the pandemic.
The legal challenge outlines the government's failure to respond to the increased risk of harm and potentially death for domestic abuse survivors during lockdown (see below). Southall Black Sisters and the Public Interest Law Centre are asking the UK government to immediately provide a separate emergency fund to local authorities to ensure they can adequately house domestic abuse survivors in hotels or other appropriate locations and ensure specialist support is available. The challenge comes after the government failed to respond to an offer by Southall Black Sisters and Compassion in Politics, along with a number of hotel chains, to provide currently vacant hotel rooms to domestic abuse survivors.
Previously, the Public Interest Law Centre, together with Solace Women’s Aid (and over 50 signatories), had written a letter to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government demanding that urgent measures are taken to ensure that those who are at risk of abuse are protected and supported during the pandemic. The government has so far failed to act in response to the real and immediate risk to survivors during lockdown.
Domestic abuse, and other forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG), is a cause of deep concern under ‘normal’ circumstances. In the year ending March 2018, 1.3m women experienced some form of domestic abuse. On average, the police in England and Wales receive over 100 calls relating to domestic abuse every hour. As perpetrators of domestic abuse are primarily relatives, partners or ex-partners, spending time indoors is often unsafe for those experiencing abuse.
Due to the government’s social distancing measures, the danger posed to survivors of domestic abuse is exacerbated. Between 23 March and 12 April 2020, the number of recorded killings rose from an average of two deaths per week to an average of five deaths per week, a total of 16 killings within a three-week period. This figure represents only the most extreme cases of domestic abuse and signals a general trend of increased risk to those living in abusive homes. China, Brazil, Spain and Italy have also reported a rise in cases since lockdown measures were introduced.
While infection control measures, such as self-isolation and social distancing, are undoubtedly necessary, survivors are experiencing higher rates of violence and abuse as a result. The government’s lockdown measures therefore pose a real and immediate risk to those exposed to domestic abuse.
Despite recent announcements by the government accepting this increased risk and pledging support for domestic abuse survivors, none tackle the absence of safe accommodation for survivors at the current time.
The home secretary has announced ‘up to’ £2m to enhance online support services and helplines for domestic abuse. While funding helplines may assist some domestic abuse survivors to take action, it does not displace the need for sufficient safe accommodation for those survivors who have to leave their family homes.
A general fund has also been allocated to help those in need, and a £750m charity fund has been announced. However, there is no clarity as to how much of this will be allocated to domestic abuse charities and whether any of the money will be used for accommodation provision to cater for the increased numbers fleeing abuse.
A disproportionate number of victims of domestic violence are women, and as such it is a ‘disproportionately gendered crime’.1The government response to the report from the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill, session 2017-19 HL Paper 378/HC 2075: Domestic Abuse Bill, CP 137, July 2019. The current policy of lockdown will have a disproportionate impact on women because of the increased likelihood of abuse during this time.
Migrant women will experience further barriers, including those with insecure immigration status/no recourse to public funds. They are likely to suffer additional abuse as a result of their dependency on abusive partners who use their precarious status as a further means of control. Survivors often lack the language and confidence to assert their rights, and, as a result, control and coercion are essential features of the abuse they suffer.
The government must therefore allocate sufficient and specific funding to ensure all survivors can be adequately and safely housed, so as to mitigate the adverse consequences of lockdown on women. Local authorities will either be unwilling or unable to properly support women unless the government provides a ring-fenced fund for this purpose, as well as comprehensive guidance on how those resources ought to be used.
With £330bn having recently been promised to support business, there is simply no excuse for not spending a small fraction of that on ensuring that those experiencing abuse are able to escape into safety. The failure to implement the necessary measures will no doubt result in a disproportionate and prejudicial impact on women and a further disproportionate impact on migrant women.

About the author(s)

Description: Isabella Mulholland - author
Isabella Mulholland is a legal caseworker at Public Interest Law Centre.