Interview with Leeds Women’s Aid: A deep dive into domestic abuse

This year, violence against women has been in the spotlight more than ever before, finally garnering the necessary attention from authorities. But there is a significant amount of work that still needs to be done to ensure the safety of women in this country – strangers in the streets are not the only threats we face. No, sometimes the threat is much, much closer to home, and with this in mind, we sat down with Leeds Women’s Aid to discuss domestic abuse and some of the legal hurdles surrounding it.

Can you tell me about the work and goals of Leeds Women’s Aid?

Leeds Women’s Aid works with women and families across Leeds in order to help them live safe lives free from domestic abuse. We work within the Leeds Domestic Violence Service, which works to combat domestic abuse, but Leeds Women’s Aid also works with partner agencies to offer other services as well. It’s all about making sure women are empowered and have their voices listened to in the city and can live safe lives and have equal access to services. 

Was Leeds Women’s Aid involved in any of the protests and awareness raising for Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa?

We’re constantly advocating around domestic abuse and safety as women; the Women’s Lives Leeds Voices programme is the part of Leeds Women’s Aid which is advocating around that. They are actively involved and working with Leeds City Council – they’re actually trying to become the first women’s friendly city in the country, so it’s a big piece of work.

How would they do that?

They’re working with lots of different women’s groups across the city, they’ve set up lot of different forums and they’ve actually done a survey on how women view their safety in Leeds and what things they do to keep themselves safe to get a feeling of what’s going on. Obviously, this is in light of Sarah Everard, as it’s brought to the attention of the mainstream media now, but we knew as a service before that these issues are long standing, the only thing that’s different here is that. 

Would you be able to comment on the recent spikings in clubs and bars in Leeds?

All I can say is that it’s just quite shocking, and it’s frightening what lengths people are going to. It just fetches back a lot of the issues we face daily working with clients involved in sexual violence and issues around consent. 

Over the past five years, nearly 13,000 cases of domestic abuse have been dismissed in England and Wales due to the six-month time limit– what are your thoughts on this?

This six-month time limit was the legal amount of time allocated for victims of common assault (including domestic violence) to press charges. Cases that exceeded this time limit were dropped. 

I think it’s a shocking figure, but also, it’s not a figure that surprises us. We work with women that are involved in reporting to the police – we support them in that process and liaise with officers. If a suspect is charged, we attend court with people and support them through that court process. We are seeing less perpetrators be charged and go to court, we hear directly from victim-survivors about their experiences with the police and they’re disappointed when their reported incidents don’t resort in positive action through the criminal justice system.

Does the main obstacle seem to be the police as an institution or the justice system?

I think it’s twofold. You’ve got the initial barriers of reporting to the police – there’s a lot of complex issues involved in coming forward. It can take some time before people can process what’s actually happened to them and then sometimes going through the process of giving the statement can be re-traumatizing. Then there’s the issue of collecting evidence and how to go about doing that. The police are in a difficult situation as well though, because their resources have been cut short. They are under a lot of pressure and I do think that’s having an impact on their ability to carry out their investigations to their full capability as well – with the six-month statute barred, there are so many cases to investigate, but not enough time. 

When you get to the point where someone is charged, you have the additional barriers of the criminal justice system. At the moment, it’s the length that it takes to get the court cases through court and keeping people on board to go to trial and give evidence. There were long delays prior to COVID, but now there’s an even greater backlog of cases. We’ve had clients that have been waiting over two years to have their case heard in court. It’s understandable why people move on with their lives and at that point are not prepared to come back, give evidence and relive such a traumatic time. 

Based on your experience, how much time do you think should be allocated to investigate a domestic abuse case?

In terms of the statistics and recommendations around the issue being statute barred, we would support that the investigation time limits are increased to two years. It would allow the officers to have time to go get the evidence and fully investigate and give people faith in the criminal justice system. It’s very difficult for someone to come forward and explain what’s happened to them, especially with the issues of coercive and controlling behaviour. At the time people don’t necessarily realise that’s a type of abuse that they’re experiencing, and it’s only recently in the last couple of years become a crime. 

Home Secretary Priti Patel has recently backed demands to extend the time limit to two years, and a new Bill is currently making its way through Parliament, so change may be on the horizon.

In terms of coercion and controlling behaviour, how is it defined in terms of charging a crime? How can it be proven and where’s the line?

It’s a very difficult crime to prove because generally it can be seen as one word against another party. In terms of an investigation, the police need to get a statement from the victim/survivor regarding what’s happened and collect collaborative evidence about that situation. It might be that that person has confided in friends and family. Police can go and speak to their friends and family to get statements which confirms there’s been a change in that person’s behaviour. It might be that they’ve witnessed certain things. It might be that victim survivor has confided in professional services, especially health services. They may have approached their GP or midwife and talked about what’s happened and although they might not see it as a crime at that point, it will be reported in the notes and can be used as evidence to support that this controlling behaviour was occurring. 

One abuse tactic seen quite often is threatening suicide in order to get their partner to stay. Would that also be considered a crime or would it be considered a mental health crisis?

I think it can be considered both. We do see it quite often as a tactic as part of the domestic abuse, to try to get someone to remain in the relationship. If there is a threat of suicide or ‘if you leave me, I’m going to kill myself’, people don’t want that responsibility, so they stay. But at the same time, there could be a genuine mental health need, so I think it needs to be a two-fold approach. We need to make sure we’re not just saying: ‘This is just a tactic; this is just a threat’.  I would say it wouldn’t be deemed a crime just on its own, but domestic abuse has to be looked at as a pattern of behaviour, and not isolated incidents. Which is a barrier we face quite often with the police, as they view things in isolation. You ring up for that specific incident, but you have to look at the bigger picture and piece the different incidents together. That’s how you can form the investigation and link up other types of crime.

What do you think could be done to make victims feel more comfortable in coming forward?

There are some very good police officers out there with some very good training around domestic abuse on how to approach things, but you may also get people who are not comfortable in talking around domestic abuse or who may not have received the adequate training. One of the biggest barriers is thinking that if they go to the police, no one will believe them that it happened. We need people to have empathy and be able to engage with the victim-survivor. Unfortunately, you do sometimes hear inappropriate comments being made – they may not be made maliciously, but those inappropriate comments can really put someone back in terms of their recovery and their faith in reporting to the criminal justice system. 

I think it’s just about empathizing that you will be believed if it happens and that everything will be done to fully investigate and to keep people involved in the process as well. You are giving the police a very intimate detailed information about a time in your life and all you want is to know regular updates of what’s happening with the investigation. We know that’s supposed to happen under the Victim’s Code, but unfortunately, people are being left for weeks, months, without receiving regular updates of what’s happening. It might be that things haven’t progressed, but just a phone call to tell someone: ‘I haven’t forgotten about you, this is still on-going’ means a lot, but unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen. 

Do you find that there’s a difference between female and male officers when dealing with domestic abuse?

It depends on the individual, but in our experience, female victims of domestic abuse are more likely to be more comfortable and open up more with a female officer, especially when discussing sexual violence. We come across this in our other work also and we always request to use a female interpreter when needed, just because there may be cultural issues involved. 

How can we redirect the narrative to preventing abuse, rather than telling potential victims to recognise red flags? For example, the police released a statement regarding Sarah Everard telling women not to trust police officers rather than discipling their officers.

I think that’s the one thing that’s really been brought into the forefront by the Sarah Everard case – we need to have a shift. There does need to be a change in narrative in terms of education. In terms of domestic abuse, a lot of the stereotypical questions are still asked: ‘Why does she stay? Why doesn’t she leave?’ Really, we should be asking: ‘Why does he abuse her? Why is he violent to her?’ We see the same with sexual violence as well, with people saying: ‘She was too drunk. She was wearing a short skirt.’ We constantly see that victim blaming, and until we change the education around that and flip the narrative to focus on the perpetrator, their actions and how we tackle it, it’s difficult to see how it will change. 

What do you think has been the impact of coronavirus lockdowns on domestic abuse?

We saw a massive increase in demand for our service during the COVID-19 pandemic. When we first heard that everyone was being ordered to stay at home, we got very worried for our clients, because home is not always a safe place for people to be. A lot our clients come from referrals from as services like health – at GP appointment, you have the routine inquiry around asking a female: ‘Are you safe? Are you experiencing any abuse?’ Information like that can’t be disclosed over the phone, so it really increased the isolation that victim-survivors were experiencing. Our service had to change the way we offered our support and how we communicated with people, so we set up our online chat that we have at Leeds Women’s Aid. Here, people can access support through speaking to someone online, which for some people was safer than receiving phone calls. As the lockdown started to lift, we saw people then making the decision to leave, which caused huge increases in reports to the police. COVID-19 really has had a massive impact on domestic abuse, and we’re still feeling the outcome of that now. We found that people who were in relationships ignored potential feelings of unease, because you had to form bubbles or be part of a household to see each other. People moved in together a lot quicker as well, which had a massive impact on the number of people in shorter term relationships who have experienced abuse. 

Do you have any final comments?

I would recommend using the Leeds Women’s Aid website, where there’s more information about services available, including our online webchat, and services in support of young people.

Leeds Women’s Aid –

To all our lovely readers, please stay safe and remember to check in with friends and family if you see any red flags in their relationships or in your own. Remember, just because ‘we accept the love we think we deserve’, it does not mean that better alternatives do not exist – nobody deserves to feel unsafe or unhappy in their relationship.

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