Updated: Dec 24, 2020
It’s a perpetrators dream’: court orders to stop domestic abuse soared during lockdown by Emily Dugan, Social Affairs Correspondent published on Sun 8 Nov 20
While every reasonable person would wish to ensure domestic abuse victims are fully supported, this Sunday Times article makes a number of claims that follow a recent narrative which doesn’t appear to be completely honest. In Renews view, without total transparency, integrity and honesty about domestic abuse, and, indeed, the wider field of Family Law and Justice, poor policies will be implemented & poor decisions made, leading to distress and even danger for children.
Specifically, on the topic of domestic abuse, the public debate has sadly become very polarised between female and male perspectives. Indeed, it could be argued that articles, such as this one in the Sunday Times, are not only misleading but opportunistically aimed at increasing pressure on government to provide funding for women's domestic abuse charities on the basis of possible exaggeration. So, we need take a granular look at what the data is tells us, rather than seizing on top-line figures for the sake of sensational headlines.
This article's opening sentence states: “Domestic violence in the county’s first lockdown led to a record number of people using the courts to protect themselves from abusers’ new figures show.” It goes on to say “More than 8,800 applications for domestic violence remedy orders were made between April and June 2020, the highest number ever recorded by the Ministry of Justice in a quarter. The figure was 24% higher than the same quarter last year.”
These are big claims, which the author attributes to “the pressure cooker effect of lockdown”, a familiar line repeated countless times in the media and in postings from women's charities, such as Women’s Aid and Refuge. With that, let us delve into the data so that we can fact check.
Claim 1 - 8,800 applications were made April to June 2020
This is actually slightly understated. There were 8,899 applications.
Claim 2 – 24% higher than the same quarter last year
This is correct, albeit that Non-Molestation Orders (NMOs) increased by 26% while applications for Occupation Orders increased by 17%. However, this is not the full picture. NMO’s actually granted were up 18%, while Occupation Orders actually granted were down 3.6%.
Claim 3 – from the title of the article “domestic abuse soared in lockdown”
This is where the rhetoric begins to crumble. Although there was an apparent increase in claims, the clear insinuation was that this increase was “due to lockdown”, and that it “soared”. So, this is where we need to get into the detail to determine whether or not these claims are valid. Getting into the detail means dissecting the data on a number of levels, as follows:
1. The graph below shows the steady increase we’ve seen in applications for Non-Molestation Orders since 2011. There is a clear upward trend ever since 2013, that simply continues into and beyond lockdown at a similar pace, so can this be attributed to lockdown, or is it the case that the family law industry simply continues it seemingly relentless ‘business as usual’ growth march?
2. Sticking with the graph above, LASPO (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment Act 2012) was brought into law as an austerity measure, with the intention of reducing the burden of a significant legal aid bill. The bill was not without controversy or warning from the legal profession that it will lead to a rise in false allegations being made in order to gain legal representation with the bill paid by the state. You can see clearly, that there is a consistent and static level of NMO applications leading up to the bill becoming law, followed by a steady climb resulting in almost double the quantity in the space of 7 years. Over the course of that time, the barrier for successful application to legal aid has been lowered, steadily, such that it is now sufficient to have a letter from a GP or domestic abuse charity stating there is domestic abuse, in order to meet the requirements. With these letters, a Non-Molestation order will be granted in over 95% of cases, with no review of evidence required, just a verbal say so of the applicant. From this point forward, the applicant is entitled to legal aid, and their solicitor can stretch out their case as long as is necessary at the tax payers’ expense, and not only will that legal aid cover this protection order, but all matters relating to divorce and child arrangements. During lockdown, of course, GP appointments were by telephone, and the same would be true for domestic abuse charity assistance, therefore a telephone call was all that was required to gain the “evidence” required to meet the legal aid threshold, not that prior to lockdown it was in any way difficult to meet the threshold, as no due diligence is carried out to determine whether claims have any foundation, professionals are instructed to “believe the victim” (albeit, only if they are female), both Women’s Aid and Refuge make this clear in their marketing, see below.
A video produced by The Glass Blind Spot, investigates the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, operated by Refuge to compare the responses to male and female victims of abuse. The difference is nothing short of shocking, and clearly in breach of Equality laws, discriminating against men and favouring women on the grounds of sex. Worse, male callers to Respect, a charity whose purpose is to support male victims of domestic abuse, takes callers to their service through a 22 point triage questionnaire, 17 of those questions are to vet whether they are in fact a perpetrator of domestic abuse claiming to be a victim, subsequent to which they may report that caller to social services and disclose the details to their female abuser! It is little wonder, that male victims of abuse are so reluctant to reach out for support, and therefore 3 x less likely to report than a female victim of domestic abuse.
3. Next, I think it is important to look at what possible geographic influences there are with these applications, because surely, if “lockdown” was responsible for “soaring” incidents of domestic abuse, then this would be reflected pretty much uniformly around the country?! But we aren’t seeing uniformity at all, first of all let’s take a look at how the numbers breakdown across England & Wales.
The first thing anyone would notice from the chart above is that Wales has remained static over the entire timeline of the chart, whilst there is substantial growth in England. How can that be? Is it that domestic abuse is only on the rise in England? So, we must dig a little deeper now to find out what other anomalies may be at play…but this certainly shows lockdown has had no effect whatsoever so far as domestic abuse prevalence is concerned in Wales, which is great news! Note to self to let Welsh Women’s Aid know about this immediately!
4. Digging further means we look at the regions of England, because surely if it’s true that domestic abuse “soared” during lockdown, that would be pretty much uniform across the nation of England too, and broadly in line with the whole of England chart? The chart below says, no, that isn’t the case! In fact, you can see very clearly that the bulk of the increase comes from the South East and Midlands regions (65% of the total increase since 2011), with London seeing no growth at all in applications since 2011, and other regions much more modest rises.
Its immediately apparent from this graph, that London, the most densely populated area of the country, somehow has seen a 7% reduction in the requirement for protective court orders during lockdown compared to the previous quarter, and the Q2 figure in 2020 was 1.3% lower than the same period in 2019! Contrast this oddity, with the Midlands region more than trebling since 2011 and the South East region multiplying by approx. 2.5 times. How is this legitimately feasible if there is not widespread manipulation of the system at play?
5. Having seen this rather strange anomaly, its only right that we pursue this thread by comparing directly Q2 from 2019 to 2020, and we see the North East, London and Wales have all declined, while the other regions have increased, how can that be explained?
But what is the growth in Midlands and the South East from Q2 2019 to Q2 this year, because that seems to be where the majority of the additional harm is being caused, and either services need to be deployed primarily to those locations, or there is some other dynamic at play?! The total growth in those two regions is 933 applications, from a total increase across England & Wales of 1,440. Taking those two regions away, the nationwide increase in NMO’s would have been 507 or 6.5%, which is much closer to the increase noted in the August police statistical reports. Something smells fishy!
Interestingly, very early on in lockdown we had numerous news stories about resident parents taking advantage of the lockdown to prevent contact between the children and the non-resident parent, the example from the BBC below led to the MoJ issuing guidance and Boris Johnson & Co making it crystal clear during Coronavirus press briefings that children should continue to be cared for as per court ordered arrangements. Note the highlighted claim that family lawyers told the BBC they have been “inundated”.
6. It is pretty tricky to quantify how closely related the increase in NMO applications are to the restriction of contact, not least because applications are spread out over such a wide area and over so many courts, but let’s pick a few areas to see what we find. Firstly, let’s look at London, which the data tells us had a slight fall in applications to the court for domestic violence protection orders during the first lockdown, despite being the most densely populated area. When a parent breaches court ordered contact arrangements, the other parent is able to submit a C79 application to enforce the order of the court (at least that is what is supposed to happen, though in practice it happens barely 0.5% of the time). Applications for this type of order rose by a fairly modest 4.6% compared to the quarter immediately before lockdown and by 6% compared to the same quarter the previous year, in line with the general growth in this type of application nationally over the last 10 years. Now if we compare that to Avon & Somerset, the graph below shows us a continued rapid increase in NMO applications from Q1 to Q2, with a total increase in applications of 25 (221 up to 246)
Both Taunton & Bristol courts fall within the Avon & Somerset region and combined they have an increase in C79 Enforcement applications, from Q1 to Q2, of 34, rising from 39 to 73. This begs the question as to how many of those NMO applications were submitted for “tactical” reasons, or maybe this is just a one off? But if we look at Sheffield family court, there was no increase in NMO applications between Q1 & Q2 and there were no applications for C79 Enforcement, in York Family Court, NMO applications dropped by 1 from 38 to 37 and there was a reduction in C79 applications also from the previous quarter from 20 down to 15. In Brighton there was an increase of 14 NMO applications, and an increase of 16 C79 applications! I’m seeing a pattern, are you?
7. It could be stated that the above are all mere coincidence, so let’s add some further weight. Figures released by the Welsh Governments VAWG (Violence Against Women & Girls) helpline show a 14% reduction in demand for the period in lockdown compared to the same period the previous year. (note: they use tax year quarters hence why it says Q1 on the chart).
8. Another example of easily accessible data that both sheds light on the actual state of play of domestic abuse through lockdown, and simply must challenge the narrative we’ve been subjected to, is provided though Citizens Advice publicly available data tool. The chart below represents a large sample size of data for this year so far and compares year on year to the previous 12 months. What is very clearly apparent is the substantial increase in domestic abuse enquiries relating to “other family members”, 44% up from the previous year, yet looking at partner abuse by a male against a female there’s a reduction of 12%, a female against a male is down 16% and against a child is also down 12%. The likelihood that Women’s Aid or Refuge have segmented domestic abuse reporting to understand the source of the abuse is slim at best (or they have but choose to keep quiet about the outcome as it not helpful to their narrative), and the police have certainly not disclosed any more granular detail than there being an increase in call outs. It does however stand to reason, that domestic abuse between family members that are not couples may increase, such as between siblings/step siblings, thrown into spending far more time with one another than they ever have and with far fewer outlets for their energy.
9. Throughout lockdown and beyond, Women’s Aid and Refuge have made claims that demand for their helpline and website has increase by anything from 25% to a 10-fold increase, and various figures in between, with regular reports of this in the media. They’ve recently announced figures from their webchat service, shown below:
Worthy of note, is that its claimed 110k women visited their chat page (although I’m unsure how it’s possible to determine the sex of anyone browsing a website) and those visits led to conversations with 2,600 women, a conversion rate of less than 2.5%, and less than 10 conversations per day. This seems very modest demand for the service on the face of it, and if the 10-fold increase in demand during lockdown were anything close to being true, suggests they were only having 2 or 3 conversations per day by webchat before and since lockdown!