Sarah Evans, Partner in Coodes Solicitors’ Family team, is shocked, but not surprised by the National Rural Crime Network’s report on domestic abuse.
The National Rural Crime Network has today released a report entitled Captive and Controlled: Domestic Abuse in Rural Areas. Based on in-depth interviews carried out over 18 months, the report exposes what is, to many people, a hidden side of rural life.
The report found that people living in rural areas are half as likely to report their abuse and, on average, suffer abuse for 25 per cent longer, compared with people living in towns or cities.
I welcome this report, which brings into the spotlight a situation that is all too real and familiar to me and my colleagues. As a family lawyer, I have been helping people escape domestic abuse for many years. As I work in South East Cornwall, many of my clients live in exactly the kinds of isolated communities that feature in the National Rural Crime Network’s report.
The report points to a number of factors that make domestic abuse more prevalent and more difficult to tackle in the UK’s most isolated communities. These include fragmented support services, poor public transport, inadequate police responses and cultural issues. These complex factors, and many more, contribute to domestic abuse lasting longer and being underreported, when compared to urban areas.
While we should all be shocked and appalled by the findings, I was not surprised. The report is detailed and far-reaching, but there are a few key findings that I feel are particularly pertinent.
The report paints a picture of rural life, which I recognise – close-knit communities where everyone knows everyone else. While this can provide a support network, it can also create an environment where people feel afraid to speak out. I have supported clients who said they haven’t sought help because they don’t think anyone will believe that their spouse or partner, a well-respected figure in the community, is abusive.
While I do not believe most communities would deliberately collude to protect abusers, they can create an environment in which domestic abuse remains hidden. The report makes the important point that it can be almost impossible for victims to seek help without it becoming known to other members of a close-knit community.
The report also found that many rural areas are traditional and patriarchal, where ‘men tend to hold the rural positions of power – head of the household, landowner, landlord, policeman, farmer’. This is something I recognise, and I know that in some cases it can normalise domestic abuse. I have worked with families, where abuse has continued through generations and has gone unchecked, seen as being ‘just part of life’. Physical abuse is more widely recognised, but coercion and control is still not acknowledged as abuse in many of these traditional communities.
Here in Cornwall, we face the added issue of being one of the poorest areas in the UK, with pockets of extreme deprivation. Escaping domestic abuse is undoubtedly even more difficult if you don’t have access to finances. It creates a barrier against leaving the marital home and can even prevent victims from attending court or seeking help, because of the cost of transport. And, of course, many abusers will deliberately ensure their victims remain dependent on them financially.
It is an unfortunate reality that living in a rural area means you have fewer services on your doorstep. The lack of public transport can be a real barrier, making it impossible for some to access support services or to go to court, for example.
The report references the lack of female police offers in rural areas and insufficient domestic abuse training for the police. Sadly, this is familiar to me too. While I encounter some excellent examples of police responses to domestic abuse, it is not always the case. It is always extremely frustrating to discover, for example, that the police have not dealt with breaches to non-molestation orders (also known as injunctions) in a timely fashion.
The report also points to the fragmented support services for domestic abuse victims living in rural areas, saying that these services are scarce and becoming less available as a result of budget cuts. While this is true for some of our clients, in Cornwall, we have a number of excellent services, such as First Light. I work with these support services on a day-to-day basis and know they make a real difference in helping people rebuild their lives.
The report makes a number of recommendations on how to tackle this complex and serious problem. Not surprisingly, it includes a range of recommendations aimed at the Government, police and commissioners, as well as society as a whole. The Government has just introduced its Domestic Abuse Bill in Parliament, which includes more support for victims and greater powers to bring perpetrators of abuse to justice.
One change I would like to see is the introduction of Independent Domestic Abuse Advisors (Idvas) to the Family Courts. Idvas already play a crucial role in securing the safety of domestic abuse victims, whose cases are going through the Criminal Courts. Extending this role to the Family Courts would provide more people with this valuable service, which can make a huge difference.
Perhaps the greatest hurdle is for society to change. The report states that ‘we need to collectively seek to address the underlying societal structures that facilitate this abuse’. This is a huge challenge, but it is one that I think we should all strive to meet.