On 12th January 2020 the World Health Organisation announced that a novel coronavirus had been identified from cases of a flu like illness. The original analysis of the virus’ genetic sequences suggested that these flu like cases that had been examined from a few cases in one corner of the world, were the cause of the subsequent international virus outbreak that became a global earth pandemic. This virus is referred to as SARS-CoV2, and the associated disease as COVID-19.
Whatever the accurate story of origin is, the COVID-19 pandemic that ensued was ferocious and raged around the world, claiming many lives. In response to the pandemic, guidance was issued for the lockdown of humans in their home, that guidance became rules that were enforced, these rules soon became laws. Whilst no doubt necessary in the race to preserve human life, those laws created circumstances where vulnerable people were locked down in their homes and forced to share limited space at home with their aggressors, whilst simultaneously being isolated from friends, family, and any other external support or escape. The apparent safety of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown created the perfect conditions for the Domestic Abuse ‘shadow pandemic’ to develop and thrive. So, whilst most of us were glad of the lockdown enforcement which offered a means to be protected from COVID-19, we saw the shadow pandemic of domestic abuse explode with extreme force and devastation, with all police forces and professionals working within the sector reporting dramatic increases in reports of abuse in the home. The very method of control for the COVID-19 virus that ravaged so many families and claimed so many lives, became the catalyst for the shadow pandemic of domestic abuse.
Having emerged from the COVID-19 lockdown, it is apparent to all that the world has changed. We have all embraced, or at least learned to adapt to, the new normal way of living. Working from home has normalised, there are more virtual events, and the birth of the innovative Metaverse gives a glimpse of the proportions that our increasingly virtual futures will reach. The majority are relishing the opportunity to maximise their working hours working from home, being there to see our own children to bed, or able to see in a delivery at any time without using precious annual leave, saving four hours of commute a day to spend some time revitalising on a hobby or much needed rest. For others, the vulnerable, they are facing increased time in fear and abuse.
It is our professional and human duty to ensure that we utilise our Pandemic experiences and transform them into learning to combat, not just the COVID-19 virus, but also the shadow pandemic of domestic abuse, and the increased exposure to harm that our most vulnerable continue to face.
Lesson 1: Service Methods:
One of the biggest transitions we all had to make when we entered lockdown was the transition from Face-to-Face services to a myriad of alternatives. A meeting with your doctor turned from attending the surgery, to filling in an E-Form. Taking the dog to the Vet, that became a video consultation. An in-person meeting was moved to a telephone conference. These changes impacted the usual avenues for the vulnerable to access help and support. The new methods of service provision offered, whilst wonderful in facilitating the battle against COVID-19, lacked the privacy and confidentiality of a closed door, and the benefits of eye contact and body language, and helped feed the spread of domestic abuse.
There is now an absolute need to ensure that the future design of our professional service provision is adjusted to permanently suit the revised, and predominantly remote, ways of living.
The foundation of excellent service provision for the vulnerable in a new normal world is to ensure that our tech interfaces are fit for purpose, that looks different for every business, it could be as simple as the addition of a button on a website, or more complex with investment in and introduction of a whole new element of software, or hardware investment. The effort and investment must be made to ensure that help can be accessed in the same discreet, simple way that it was before – albeit differently. Both service users, and service providers recognise and want these remote access facilities, but it is the providers responsibility to ensure that the provision is effective and fit for purpose.
Lesson 2: Regulatory Evolution:
Through the human experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is unprecedented for most of us in our lifetimes, there has been an admirable and rapid response from the regulators and law makers of the legal world. Despite the unfamiliarity of the circumstances around the crisis, we have seen a rapid adaptation in many aspects of the law and practice to ensure the continuation of access to justice.
Consider for example the guidance issued by the PFD that pre-empted the overwhelming rush of child arrangements queries we all received from our clients – clear cut guidance for parents to follow, likewise the Family Law Act Injunction Covid contingency arrangements that were rapidly published, or Pilot Practice Direction 36U dealing with service of injunctions.
Where in the past we have had legislation and regulation that has limped on long past its fit for purpose date, we learned through the COVID-19 pandemic that the ability of legislators and regulators to evolve with the times is entirely possible, and in fact, is essential not only to continued service provision, but also to effective protection from domestic abuse for our vulnerable.
The regulatory and legislative changes that floored us with the speed of their development and introduction went a long way in the battle against both the COVID-19 and the Domestic Abuse pandemics, we should be proud of the achievements in both of those areas, and be sure they are maintained.
Lesson 3: Reconnection
We were physically kept far apart from other humans when ‘locked down’ in our homes. We were reminded in our isolation of the value of community and human connectivity. In being isolated, we learned that the real value of living is in the connection both to our own humanity and to other humans. If we maintain that connection to ourselves, and to each other, if we continue to value knowing ourselves and our families again, and by extension – remain caring for our community members and neighbours, then we can maintain safe COVID-19 practice, whilst simultaneously establishing connections with other people, with the vulnerable, perhaps even better than ever before. For it is not the means of connection, whether it be contact between the naked eyes or via a computer screen, the shake of a firm hand, or the raise of a little yellow one on teams, the importance is the energy and intention we make that connection with.
Domestic Abuse in the Pandemic – what have we learned? We have had a learning curve and emerged thoroughly educated, knowing that with innovation and bravery, we can emerge victorious from the COVID-19 pandemic battle, I am hopeful that the shadow pandemic of domestic abuse is similarly tackled, and not left to rage uncontrollably in the new normal world. If we remain present, and determined, it is not just the battles that we will overcome, it is a war that can be won on both fronts.
Written by: Adelle Banks
Supervising Solicitor | Kent