What Solicitors need to know about Domestic Abuse

Welcome to the first in our series of blog posts on our first SWRC Inform seminar Domestic Abuse and Scots Law – Training for Solicitors, delivered by Helen Hughes last week. Today we’re going to be looking at what solicitors need to know about domestic abuse.

At the outset of the seminar, Helen emphasised that Domestic Abuse (DA), also known as intimate partner violence, is a human rights violation and is about coercive-control, where partners seek to control every aspect of their partners’ life. DA can affect any person; however, statistics show that it is is “a gendered crime disproportionately committed by men against women.” (Dr Mairead Tagg, Domestic Abuse and Scots Law, W Green 2011; J Mooney “Revealing the Hidden Truths of Domestic Violence” in J Hanmer and C Itzin (EDS) Home Truths About Domestic Violence: Feminist Influences on Policy and Practice (London: Rotuledge 2000). Further, as the SWRC specifically supports women aged 16 and over, when we talk about clients/victims in this blog, we will generally refer to women, and the perpetrator will generally be referred to as a man. Despite this, we are aware – and do acknowledge – any person in a relationship or a family can be a victim of DA.

a gendered crime disproportionately committed by men against women

Throughout the seminar, Helen highlighted that solicitors who work in this field have a duty to educate themselves on DA to ensure that they are best equipped to advise their clients. Helen acknowledged the increasing recognition of the scale and impact of DA in Scotland; however, more change is needed and, in our legal system, change starts with solicitors.

Making Clients Safe

Helen emphasised that a solicitor’s primary aim should always be to make sure their client is safe. A solicitor should not take steps that may put their client at risk. Sometimes this may mean advising the client to leave the area and/or not raise any court action.

Helen identified a (non-exhaustive) checklist that solicitors can work through when assisting clients who are experiencing DA. As suggested by Dr Mairead Tagg in Domestic Abuse and Scots Law, Helen agreed that that solicitors should:

1. Listen carefully to clients, gathering both current and historical evidence of abuse (offering clients
different methods to disclose information such as to write down what’s happened, or email it to the
solicitor in order to reduce re-traumatisation);
2. Be knowledgeable about domestic abuse;
3. Take concerns of those affected seriously;
4. Listen to the client sympathetically and respond respectfully and sensitively;
5. Remain mindful of the dangers that the victim has faced and may still face; assess the risk to the client –
the most dangerous time for the client is often the point at which they leave; and
6. Ensure that the culture of victim-blaming is challenged at the outset.

Helen highlighted the importance of solicitors’ changing their perspective so that they can see things from the client’s point of view, and being sensitive to the contradictions that many women face.

Helen also noted the effect that DA can have on children, both directly and indirectly, for example in terms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Bonding (aka Stockholm Syndrome). Solicitors are not expected to be psychologists, but require to understand that children may display certain behaviours, which may not mean what we initially think, and to look at both the quality and function of the relationship between the alleged perpetrator and the child.

Myths

Helen highlighted some of the myths surrounding DA:

Myth:   Everything will be okay when she leaves the DA situation                                                                                  Truth:  Coercive control can continue outwith the DA situation, and exiting the relationship can be the most dangerous time

Myth:   He’s a good dad.                                                                                                                                              Truth:   Clients will often say this but what is the reality? If, for example, he withholds money, threatens to take the child, or is physically abusive in front of the children, is he being a good dad? This is not to say that he can never be a good dad (for example if abusive behaviours stem from drug/alcohol abuse, it may be that treatment could turn that around).

Myth:   Abusers are more likely than their victims to tell the truth to their evaluators.                                                  Truth:   Women in such circumstances can understandably be emotional whilst the abuser can appear calm and in control, which is their nature – it is their MO in a coercive-controlling relationship. Sometimes people have no choice, which is why solicitors need to think carefully and look at the case from the client’s perspective.

Myth:   The child demonstrates no fear/aversion to the parent, so it is safe for contact to take place.                           Truth:   In such cases, it is possible that traumatic bonding has taken place, and so this could actually be a sign of abuse.

The SWRC are hoping to deliver further seminars in relation to Gender-Based Violence. In particular, the Centre intends to deliver an accredited training programme on domestic abuse for solicitors. More details on this coming soon!  Follow our Twitter and Facebook to stay updated.