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Citizens Advice: Half a million silent on domestic abuse

22 December 2013

As the service pioneers a new scheme that has identified a shocking number of hidden victims of domestic abuse, Citizens Advice finds that some victims are failing to gain access to legal aid because they are being let down by the system.

Over the period of a year Citizens Advice Bureaux saw over 21,000 reports of domestic violence – a rise of 16% from the previous year. The charity regularly sees over 13,000 people seeking help with domestic violence issues each year.

Domestic violence still often operates below the radar and is chronically under-reported. With 0.8% of Citizens Advice Bureaux clients disclosing domestic abuse, the Citizens Advice service took action and piloted a new radical programme in bureaux across the country to give victims a safe space to disclose this hidden violence by asking a few routine questions when clients sought help with debt and housing issues.

The ASK project piloted by Citizens Advice found that in fact 27% of clients had experienced domestic violence – 3% higher than the national average reported for women.

With the intention to roll the ASK scheme out across all bureaux, the same increase in reports of domestic violence nationally could uncover over half a million (540,000) victims, the vast majority of whom would otherwise have stayed silent.

Behind these figures are often tragic stories of not just physical abuse, but of psychological and emotional cruelty from controlling perpetrators who also exploit their victims financially. Citizens Advice Bureaux clients frequently report the greater financial strain over the Christmas period and for some this has clearly been a factor in aggravating ongoing domestic abuse.

With families struggling with acute financial pressures and the cost of living this year, and debt problems consistently higher over the New Year period, Citizens Advice is concerned by reports from some of its clients that delays by the police created huge barriers to accessing legal aid. Bureaucracy and slow responses forced one client to attend court alone in order to ensure her child’s safety, as she could not afford representation.

One of the key justifications for legal aid cuts made by the government was that victims of domestic violence would continue to have access to financial support in their pursuit of justice. Victims are required by law to present some evidence of domestic violence to obtain legal aid.

Citizens Advice is calling for police forces to respond quickly to anyone reaching out for help with domestic abuse and stop delays which could put victims at risk of further violence.

Citizens Advice Chief Executive, Gillian Guy, said:

“Citizens Advice has seen a shocking 21,000 reports of domestic violence over the last year. According to the findings of the project we have undertaken to get more people to disclose their experiences of abuse, it seems this is could be a fraction of the hidden national figure.

“There cannot be any barriers to justice for those who have bravely been able to take the steps to confront a perpetrator. We are concerned about reports that some victims have been left without recourse to legal aid in bringing abusers to justice because of slow action by the police. The system must work for domestic violence victims, not against them.”

Case study

After two years of no contact, Elizabeth was shocked to receive a letter from her ex-partner that he was taking her to court to get access to their daughter. When she became pregnant members of her partner’s family put pressure on her to have an abortion. When she refused, he was violent towards her and she was forced to flee the home. Elizabeth wanted contact with their child to be supervised. She experienced delays with the police when they used the full 40 days to respond to her requests. She thought it was disgusting that she was being denied access to legal aid due to delays in administration. She had to attend court on her own because she couldn’t afford the representation, and was paralysed with fear of failing to protect her child because she couldn’t understand the letters and evidence the court needed.  

Notes to editors

  1. More case studies are available on request.
  2. Citizens Advice helped over 13,000 people with 21,700 domestic violence issues between October 2012 and September 2013.
  3. When asked if they had experienced intimate abuse since the age of 16, 24% of women and 13% of men said yes, in a question in the 2011/12 Crime Survey for England and Wales, Office for National Statistics (ONS), 2013.
  4. The ASK pilot seeks to address the fact that domestic violence is often a hidden part of the reason why someone seeks help, information or advice. Yet evidence from advice, health and other sectors indicates that people generally will not disclose experiences of domestic violence, including related financial abuse, unless directly asked. The ASK project involved the routine asking of questions that gave clients the opportunity to disclosure domestic violence and follow-up procedures. The ASK project was piloted in 9 Citizens Advice Bureaux, for clients reporting debt or housing issues. The bureaux were: Ynys Mon, Cheshire West, Epping Forest, Lancashire West, Citizens Advice Shropshire, Southwark, Tameside, Vale of Glamorgan, Wear Valley.
  5. The Citizens Advice service comprises a network of local bureaux, all of which are independent charities, the Citizens Advice consumer service and national charity Citizens Advice. Together we help people resolve their money, legal and other problems by providing information and advice and by influencing policymakers. For more see the Citizens Advice website.
  6. The advice provided by the Citizens Advice service is free, independent, confidential, and impartial, and available to everyone regardless of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion, age or nationality.
  7. To find your local bureau in England and Wales, visit www.citizensadvice.org.uk. You can also get advice online at www.adviceguide.org.uk
  8. You can get consumer advice from the Citizens Advice consumer service on 08454 04 05 06 or 08454 04 05 05 for Welsh language speakers
  9. Citizens Advice Bureaux in England and Wales advised 2.1 million clients on 6.6 million problems from April 2012 to March 2013. For full 2012/2013 service statistics see our quarterly publication Advice trends
  10. Citizens Advice service staff are supported by more than 22,000 trained volunteers, working at over 3,000 service outlets across England and Wales.