Three years following the passing of the Domestic Abuse Act, how much progress have we made in tackling domestic abuse? 

The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 (Act) received Royal Assent on 29th April 2021. The Act is now widely regarded to be a ‘landmark’ piece of legislation, but we rarely expand beyond that assertion to reflect on why, or how much the Act has helped us to tackle domestic abuse.  

The Act was undoubtedly important in delivering a step change in our national response to domestic abuse. It introduced provisions in a wide range of areas, from housing to health and the family courts, reflecting the diversity of needs that survivors have when fleeing abuse, as well as the insidious nature of domestic abuse – permeating every aspect of a victim’s life. Women’s Aid was immensely proud to campaign alongside sister organisations, activists, member services, government officials, dedicated parliamentarians, and most importantly, survivors, to secure key changes to the legislation.  

Three years following the passing of the Act, all but one of the 91 provisions have been established in law – but what has really changed for survivors? 

Access to Justice 

Although the Act provides greater assistance for survivors giving evidence in family, civil and criminal court proceedings, the court system is overborne with cases and unable to meet the significant number of requests for special measures. The measures are further inhibited by a lack of basic infrastructure. Remarkably, in many cases special measures simply cannot be implemented due to limited court facilities in outdated buildings.  

The lack of capacity and resources is also proving detrimental to the Qualified Legal Representatives (QLR) scheme, which is intended to prevent an alleged victim being questioned in court by their alleged abuser. In one case, 120 attempts were made to find a QLR. 

This means that tragically survivors continue to describe the court process as leaving them re-traumatised and the presumption of parental involvement allows perpetrators to continue controlling victims through the courts and use the system as a tool for their abuse.  

The legislative scope of the Act 

The Act introduced a statutory definition of abuse, recognising children as victims in their own right, which sits alongside comprehensive statutory guidance that places greater emphasis on non-physical forms of abuse. And yet, whilst the guidance explores abuse in all its forms, the Act pays comparatively little attention to the mental health support needs of survivors. The omission of migrant survivors and additional forms of abuse such as ‘honour’-based abuse in the legislation, also means that countless women from Black and minoritised backgrounds are left without adequate support or understanding of their experiences.  

We know that countless migrant women continue to suffer abuse in silence, for fear of their immigration status being disclosed to the Home Office by police and remain shut out from accessing safety and support.  

To equip professionals and wider society with the knowledge of domestic abuse, in all its forms, to respond effectively to survivors’ needs, it is clear that further guidance and training is needed across the police, court professionals and other statutory agencies.  


Women and children escaping domestic abuse need safe refuge and stable housing. Gatekeeping practices and a lack of understanding around the mechanics of domestic abuse unfortunately continue to inhibit the implementation of vital new protections for survivors accessing social housing.  

Despite new provisions under the Act that grant survivors ‘priority need’ status in social housing applications, survivors continue to report being denied access to affordable accommodation or being forced onto year-long waiting lists. We often see cases where housing authorities demand evidence of ‘physical violence’ to qualify for applications to social housing or other forms of support, or to have ‘corroboration’ of the abuse from the police.  

There is also still a desperate need to reform outdated joint tenancy laws, which currently require survivors to obtain consent from their abuser to end a joint tenancy and stay in their own home – a policy that the Government consulted on over two years ago and has yet to publish its response.  

Whereas those who stay within their own homes face significant housing barriers, and are often left ‘trapped’ with their abuser, for women that need to leave, accessing social housing can be very challenging. Currently, social housing allocation policies can often, unfairly, determine whether a woman is able to safely leave an abusive relationship despite guidance to local authorities on the need to disapply ‘local connection’ tests for applications from survivors fleeing abuse.  

The overreliance on the individual will or domestic abuse expertise of staff in local authorities, owing to the significant discretionary powers that they hold in determining who is eligible for local connection or other exemptions, has proven to be ineffective in guaranteeing survivors access to social housing when fleeing to a new area. 

It is of serious concern to Women’s Aid that whilst the Government is yet to publish its response to its consultation – launched over two years ago – on introducing regulations that exempt survivors from local connection requirements for social housing, new measures are being proposed which would further restrict access to safe and suitable accommodation for survivors of domestic abuse.  


Part 4 of the Act placed a legal duty on councils to fund domestic abuse in safe accommodation. The duty which was designed to uphold and stabilise a chronically underfunded national network of lifesaving refuges, has had mixed effects. Whilst some councils have assumed their new duties with a commitment to honouring the guidance, much of the funding has been diverted away from the very services we hoped the duty would revive. 

Around a quarter of specialist refuge services, and less than half of those provided ‘by and for’ Black and minoritised women, in England were not commissioned by their local authority in 2022-23 according to our research 

Whilst there’s been an increase in the funding available for refuge services, we are concerned about trends in the data, indicating a diversion of funds, away from specialist services, and towards large generic organisations, which often have next to no experience in domestic abuse, or the accredited quality standards need to qualify as a form of ‘safe accommodation’. In some cases, the statutory funding is used to set up services ‘in-house’, meaning domestic abuse support is provided by professionals in the council.  

Survivors escaping domestic abuse continue to report serious safety concerns when they can’t access specialist support. Women interviewed by the Office for National Statistics in temporary forms of accommodation were denied access to basic rights, felt isolated and depressed and were frightened for the safety of themselves and their children.  

The severe challenges with local authority budgets – with rising numbers of councils issuing Section 114 notices – are a further huge threat to the future of specialist domestic abuse support services.   

What needs to change? 

With three years to monitor the implementation of the Act, it’s abundantly clear that funding and legislation alone will not suffice in the fight against domestic abuse. Around one in four women have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16 and at least one woman a week is killed by a male partner or ex-partner. The statistics and insights from Women’s Aid’s national datasets, as well as the harrowing stories that continue to punctuate the news, tells us that we need a seismic shift in our approach to domestic abuse. But to do this, we need to coordinate a response that addresses the structural causes of domestic abuse and extends beyond the criminal justice system.  

What do we mean by this?  

Firstly, we need more than prevention programmes to intervene earlier. Currently, ongoing failures in the criminal and family courts to protect survivors; harm posed by police who are tasked with supporting women; alongside a severe lack of funding for specialist support services and prevailing misogynist attitudes means that, we have a system, which effectively, empowers perpetrators to abuse, and a society that tolerates it, which meanwhile dissuades or disempowers survivors from accessing the support they need to leave them.  

To prevent domestic abuse, we need to disarm perpetrators from their armoury of tools. Survivors need to have confidence that they can access the appropriate support they need to leave. And this requires a society that’s ‘levelled up’ in its response to domestic abuse. It also demands increased leadership accountability to address the police, health, and welfare responses to domestic abuse, working in partnership with specialist organisations and backed by sufficient funding and training. And this must unequivocally include migrant survivors.  

Above all, we need a national network of sustainably funded specialist domestic abuse services to help women rebuild their lives and live free from abuse. 

The funding and sustainability of these services remains a severe challenge which leaves women and children fleeing abuse unable to access the life-saving support. Existing funding is not only inadequate and short-term, but it also too often fails to go where it’s needed – sadly, due to poor local commissioning practices, funding can be awarded to large, generic services that are ill-equipped to provide the expert support that survivors urgently need.  

Womens specialist services understand and actually address the needs of survivors. They grew from the feminist movement of the 1970s and they have developed unparalleled experience and expertise in domestic abuse and wider forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG). Specialist services led ‘by and for’ Black and minoritised women, Deaf and disabled women and LGBT+ survivors are uniquely able to meet the needs of the survivors they support, providing a place of true safety and understanding for the groups experiencing additional forms of inequalities.  

These services are incredibly valuable not only to the women and children they support but to the whole of society. Women’s Aid estimates that properly funding, specialist domestic abuse services, in England would cost around £427 million per year which is a drop in the ocean compared to the £78 billion that domestic abuse costs society a year. Our research has also found that for every £1 invested in these services, £9 is generated in benefits to the taxpayer. This means we could save the public purse as much as £23 billion a year if the government stopped the current short-term, piecemeal patchwork of funding and committed to investing in this national infrastructure of support for women and children.    

Ultimately, survivors need a whole-system response – where all parts of society, government departments and agencies work together to increase the safety and freedom of survivors. For the Domestic Abuse Act to help us deliver this, it needs to extend its legislative scope to include all survivors, namely migrant women, and be accompanied by efficient funding and stronger accountability for the agencies tasked with its implementation.  


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