Legal help

Domestic abuse is against the law. The types of crimes a perpetrator may commit include assault, coercive control, sexual offences, harassment or stalking. You have every right to call the police and report your abuser’s behaviour. If you are in an emergency, call 999.

You can also use ‘civil’ laws to protect yourself and your children – for example, by getting a civil order that stops your abuser from contacting you. This doesn’t require police involvement. However, if your abuser breaks a civil order it may be a criminal offence and he could be arrested.

Below are responses to some common questions around domestic abuse and the law. You can get further information by talking to a solicitor, visiting websites run by lawyers, such as Rights of Women, or by calling Refuge on the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, 24-hours a day, for free and in confidence, on 0808 2000 247.

If you want to report your abuser to the police, or if the police have been called and your perpetrator is arrested, it is important to consider the following:

  • Seek support from a domestic abuse worker. This might be an ‘IDVA’ (independent domestic violence advocate) or an outreach worker who can support you. They can explain the criminal justice process, support you through any interviews, liaise with the police and courts on your behalf, and advocate for ‘special measures’ (e.g. a screen and separate entrances so that you don’t have to see your abuser) if the case goes to court, or anything else you may need. The police may refer you to a service. You can also ‘self-refer’. Find services online, or call the Helpline for a referral. Before you look for services online, consider whether your partner might be tracking how you use the internet. You can read more about abuse of technology here and read these tips on safer browsing here.
  • You have a right to be kept informed of how the case is progressing. If your perpetrator is arrested, it is important that you know if and when he is being released. The police should give you a crime reference number and they should contact you. However, if you don’t hear from the police, you can call and ask. A domestic abuse support worker can help you with this.
  • If you know your perpetrator is going to be released, it is important to consider your safety and the safety of any children. The police may release him ‘on bail’ which may or may not have conditions attached (such as a condition not to contact you). If you are not sure whether any conditions are in place, ask the police or ask your domestic abuse support worker to find out. If the police have not issued any bail conditions, ask your support worker to contact the police to see if these can be put in place.
  • If there are no bail conditions, or you feel your abuser is unlikely to stick to any conditions imposed on him and he knows where you are, you may want to consider fleeing to a safe place like a refuge. If you have a domestic abuse worker, seek support from her – if you don’t, call Refuge on the National Domestic Abuse Helpline. You can read more about keeping safe here.
  • Another option is to apply for a Non-Molestation Order (NMO) with the help of a solicitor. You can also consider applying for a NMO on your own (see below) – speak to a domestic abuse worker about your options.
  • Another option is to ask the police about getting a Domestic Violence Protection Notice (DVPN). You could do this yourself, or ask a domestic abuse support worker to ask on your behalf. This is a notice given to the abuser by the police to provide emergency protection to a victim of domestic violence. The notice contains conditions such as barring the abuser from returning to your home or otherwise contacting you. Within 48 hours of the DVPN being issued, the police must submit an application to the magistrates’ court for a ‘DVPO’ – Domestic Violence Protection Order – which will extend the terms of the DVPN for up to 28 days. Police sometimes put these notices in place without a woman asking.

If your abuser has committed a crime, the police should investigate the case and pass their evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The CPS will decide if there is enough evidence to charge the abuser with a criminal offence. If so, the abuser must attend the Magistrates Court to hear the case against him.

For many criminal offences, the abuser will have a choice to have his case heard in the Magistrates Court or to attend the Crown Court for trial by jury. However, for some criminal offences such as common assault, the abuser can only be dealt with by the Magistrates Court.

At the end of the criminal trial, whether the abuser is found guilty or not guilty, the CPS may request a ‘restraining order’ order from the judge. This is a court order that will prohibit him from certain future behaviours such as threatening or contacting you, or visiting specific places such as your home or work. It is up to the judge whether to grant such an order.  However, it is helpful to make sure that the police/CPS is specifically asking the judge to impose such an order.

If the abuser breaks a restraining order, this is a serious criminal offence punishable by up to five years prison.

There are two main types of civil orders for women experiencing domestic abuse. Non-molestation orders can prevent your abuser from using or threatening violence, intimidating, harassing, or pestering you. An occupation order can exclude your abuser from the home you share; sometimes your abuser will have to continue to pay the rent or mortgage. You can get both orders at the same time if needed. Occupation Orders can be difficult to obtain and generally a ‘high level’ of domestic abuse is required. 

Civil orders are granted by the civil court (sometimes call the county court, or family court, as opposed to the criminal court). However, if your abuser breaks a Non-Molestation Order (but not an Occupation Order) he may be arrested and charged with a criminal offence. 

You can apply for civil orders yourself, but it is better to have support from a solicitor and a specialist domestic abuse support worker. The charity Domestic Violence Assist can also help – they have a helpline you can call on 0800 195 8699.

You may be able to obtain legal aid through a family law solicitor to apply for these orders. Even if you have higher amounts of income or capital, legal aid should still be available as the Legal Aid Authority usually waives the means test. If you can’t find a legal aid solicitor or you’ve been told you’re not eligible for legal aid, here are steps to apply for the order yourself:

  1. Find your local court. You can either download, print and fill-in the forms before you go, or collect the forms from the court when you arrive. You can download the form here. If you think your partner is tracking your internet activities, use a computer he does not have access to or pick up the form in person.
  2. The form will ask if you want to apply for a non-molestation order and/or an occupation order. It will also ask for your details, your abuser’s details, and your relationship to them. It will ask for details of what you want, for example, the places you don’t want your abuser to be allowed to go to. If you are applying for an occupation order, you will have to answer questions about who owns your home, or who is on the tenancy agreement. But note that you don’t have to be a home owner or a tenant to apply for an order. 
  3. If your abuser does not know where you live or how to contact you, leave the space where it asks for your contact details blank. Your perpetrator will be ‘served’ with a copy of the order, so it is important that he doesn’t find out where you are. You will need to fill out a separate form, called a C8 form, so the court has your details but your abuser can’t access them.
  4. The form will also ask you to ‘give details in support of your application’. This is a separate statement where you can write about the history of your abuse; you can attach any evidence you have (such as print outs of abusive messages, supporting letters from professionals, photos of injuries) to the application.
  5. Once you have filled out the court form and written your statement, you will have to go to your local family or county court to apply for the order(s). Making an application is free. You can apply for these orders on an emergency basis by simply turning up at the court. You can give your forms to the administrative desk, sign and swear that your statement is true and then wait for a duty judge to be free to hear the case.
  6. You then need to go before the judge for a short time and may be asked questions about your application. If the judge agrees that they will grant the order. It is likely that an interim (or ‘emergency’) Non-Molestation Order will be granted for a couple of weeks and you will be asked to return to the court for a second hearing.
  7. Wait in the court building for the staff to type up your court order. Then once you have it, you will need to arrange to ‘serve’ the order on your abuser. It is not safe for you to do this. It should be a third party, such as a court bailiff, a process server, the police or even a friend or relative, if it is safe for them to do so. Whoever serves the order should complete a court form called a ‘Statement of Service’.
  8. Once your abuser is served with the court papers, he will be aware that there is a second hearing at court. He will be entitled to attend this hearing to put his case.
  9. The second hearing can be very difficult, as you will likely be facing your abuser in court. If you have a legal aid solicitor, then you will have an advocate to represent you. The abuser can ask you questions about your allegations, and at the end of the hearing the judge will usually decide whether to grant these orders.

Rights of Women has also written an in-depth guide to domestic abuse injunctions.

If your abuser breaks the Non-Molestation Order (for example, by threatening violence against you), this is a criminal offence punishable by a fine or up to five years in prison. You can call the police immediately and he may be arrested. If your abuser breaks the Occupation Order (for example, by turning up to the property), this is not a criminal offence. However, you can still apply for the order to be enforced in the civil courts. You can request that the police arrest your abuser for ‘contempt of a court order’ and bring him back to the civil court. 

It is important to let the police know the civil order is in place, as they may be able to ‘flag’ your property and respond quicker. You can do this by calling 101 and asking to speak to the police team that investigates domestic abuse.

Unfortunately, a civil order is no guarantee of safety. It is important that you seek support from a domestic abuse service, and/or call the Helpline. You can also read more about keeping safe here.

Divorce is another form of civil law.  Divorce cases are started by filing a divorce petition with the family court or your local Divorce Centre. You can also now start a divorce case online. On average it takes 1-2 years for a divorce to be finalised. There is only one basic ground for divorce: the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. ‘Irretrievable breakdown’ is proved by establishing one or more of five ‘facts’ for divorce:

  1. Adultery
  2. Unreasonable behaviour
  3. Desertion for two years
  4. A two year separation with your spouse’s consent
  5. A five year separation without your spouse’s consent

For all of these grounds except ground 4, it may be possible to get a divorce even if your spouse does not agree. It’s helpful to find a solicitor who not only specialises in family law and has experience of domestic abuse cases. Accredited Resolution specialists in domestic abuse can be found here.

Legal aid is available for divorce cases provided your means are within certain limits. You will also need to provide one piece of proof of the domestic abuse to the Legal Aid Agency such as a letter from an Independent Domestic Violence Advocate or a letter from a domestic abuse organisation. For a full list of possible pieces of evidence, visit the Rights of Women website.

If you have experienced domestic abuse, you do not need to enter into mediation with your ex. It may provide another opportunity for them to abuse and control you. If you have been asked to do this, you can phone the mediator, explain the situation and ask for an exemption from mediation, or ask to be seen separately from your abuser.  

During or after a divorce, the family court can settle disputes over money and property. The court may deal with financial matters such as the sale or transfer of property, maintenance payments, a lump sum payment or a pension sharing order.

Find out more about your rights around property here.
Find out more about child contact and protecting your children here.

‘Clare’s Law’ (The Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme) 

The Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (DVDS) is often called ‘Clare’s Law’. Clare’s Law gives a person in a relationship the ‘Right to Ask’ the police if their partner may pose a risk of harm to them. Under Clare’s Law, a member of the public can also make enquiries into the partner of a close friend or family member. If disclosure is deemed necessary, the information is given to the person at risk, not to the applicant. Trained police officers and advisers can then provide support to victims. Under Clare’s Law, the police can also decide to disclose information to someone, independently of whether they have asked the police for information. This is called ‘Right to Know’. 

Criminal Injuries Compensation

If you receive a physical or mental injury from a physical attack such as assault, consider applying for compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (‘CICA’).

If you have been the victim of a sexual offence such as sexual assault or rape, it is not necessary to prove a mental or physical injury to get compensation because the experience of these crimes is automatically seen as an injury. You will probably be eligible to receive a set award depending on the type of sexual offence you have experienced.

In order to be eligible for compensation, you must report the incident to the police as soon as reasonably practicable and within two years of the date of the incident. It does not matter whether or not the perpetrator is subsequently arrested or convicted. You also must be considered ‘ordinarily resident’ in the UK to make the claim or have been identified as a victim of trafficking. If you were under 18 years old at the time of the incident, then you need to apply for compensation within two years of having reported it to the police.

You can make your own application for compensation. Organisations who may be able to assist you with this are Victim Support, Citizens Advice Bureau and Law Centres.

Remember, if your partner might be tracking how you use the internet, read these tips on safe browsing before searching for support online.

Rights of Women has a detailed online library of information about the law on domestic violence, which you can find here, as well as an advice service.

You can also use the “Find a solicitor” section of the Law Society website, to help find a solicitor specialising in family law in your area. 

You can always call Refuge – 24-hours a day – on the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247, for free and in confidence.