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Domestic violence—recognising the signs and how to get help and legal support

Last updated on January 18th, 2024 at 02:25 pm

There are several kinds of domestic violence and abuse. On this page, we:

  • explain what domestic abuse involves
  • tell you how to recognise the warning signs
  • direct you to help
  • explain the legal support that solicitors and the police can provide

Click on a link below to jump to that section:

What is domestic violence?

The government’s definition of domestic violence (or domestic abuse) is:

“any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality”

Although there isn’t a legal definition of “controlling” or “coercive” behaviour, the government generally defines it as follows:

  • Controlling behaviour—a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.
  • Coercive behaviour—an act, or a pattern of acts, of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.

Many people think of domestic violence as physical abuse, but this is only one aspect. It can also involve:

  • sexual abuse
  • emotional or psychological abuse
  • financial abuse

We explain these in the following section.

What are the signs of domestic violence or abuse?

There are many signs of abuse and recognising them means understanding the kinds of behaviour that constitute the types of abuse mentioned above.

Physical abuse

A partner or family member using physical force to assault or injure the victim. This includes acts such as:

  • punching, hitting or slapping
  • pushing or shoving
  • kicking
  • biting
  • choking
  • burning

Physical abuse often starts out as verbal threats but then escalates to physical forms of violence.

Sexual abuse

A partner or family member:

  • forcing the victim to have sex without giving consent (this is rape—the most common form of sexual abuse)
  • making them engage in sexual acts
  • touching or groping them
  • forcing them to watch pornography
  • pressuring them into having unsafe sex
  • hurting them during sex

Emotional or psychological abuse

A partner or family member intentionally doing something to:

  • frighten or intimidate the victim
  • making them feel bad
  • damaging their confidence

For example, they might:

  • constantly insult or criticise the victim
  • embarrass, shame or humiliate them
  • emotionally blackmail them
  • stop them from seeing friends or family
  • tell them what to wear, what to do or where to go

This doesn’t have to be verbal abuse—it can be non-verbal too.

Emotionally abusive relationships are extremely damaging in that they can:

  • destroy a person’s self-worth
  • cause them feelings of helplessness and fear
  • lead to anxiety and depression

Financial abuse

A partner or a family member taking control of the victim’s finances as a way of dominating them. This might include:

  • taking, stealing or withholding their money or credit cards
  • limiting them to an allowance
  • preventing them from going to work or making choices about their career

Who can suffer domestic violence or abuse?

Although the majority of domestic abuse cases are perpetrated against women in heterosexual relationships, anyone can experience domestic violence, regardless of:

  • gender
  • ethnicity
  • sexual orientation
  • religion
  • social background

Can men be victims of domestic violence?

Yes. In fact, it probably happens more often than you might think—in heterosexual as well as same-sex relationships. And it can involve all forms of domestic abuse—physical, emotional, sexual, financial and so on.

Male victims of domestic violence are no different to women in that they might feel they have to stay in an abusive relationship, whether out of shame, denial, helplessness or a need to protect children.

And some male victims believe that admitting to being abused somehow makes them weak or less of a man. This is absolutely not the case and reaching out to someone as a first step to stopping the abuse is always the right thing to do.

Is it against the law?

There isn’t a specific crime of “domestic violence”, but many acts that would be considered domestic abuse and violence are against the law—for example:

  • rape
  • assault (including sexual assault)
  • attempted murder
  • false imprisonment
  • harassment
  • criminal damage
  • coercive control

Coercive control

Since December 2015, it’s been a criminal offence to subject another person to “coercive control”—that is, behave in a way that makes them feel controlled, dependent, isolated or intimidated.

Examples of coercive control include:

  • controlling someone’s finances
  • monitoring their movements
  • threatening to kill them
  • demeaning them or making them feel worthless
  • causing damage to their property or belongings

A perpetrator of domestic violence can be arrested and charged for more than one offence. It will need to be shown that:

  • they are connected to the victim personally
  • their behaviour has had a serious effect on the victim, and they knew or should have known this when they acted as they did

A “serious effect” means either that:

  • the victim feared their abuser was going to inflict violence upon them
  • the abuser’s behaviour caused the victim to change how they live

Where can I go if I’m a victim of domestic violence?

If you want to get away from an abusive partner, you could either stay:

  • with family or friends
  • at a refuge
  • in accommodation provided by your local authority


These are special safe houses for victims of domestic violence, commonly run by charitable organisations. Many are for women and children only, although there are refuges for men too.

The staff at these refuges have lots of experience in dealing with victims of domestic violence and can provide support and advice on everything you need to know.

To arrange a stay in your local refuge, call the Freephone 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247. This is run by Refuge and Women’s Aid.

Local authority accommodation

Your local authority has a duty, by law, to provide housing for people who are legally homeless or threatened with homelessness and eligible for help.

If you’re unable to live at home because of domestic violence and have nowhere to go, the local authority should be able to assist you. It can offer temporary safe accommodation until it can find you somewhere more permanent.

To arrange this help, you can go to the local authority’s public offices or help centre in person or call its out-of-office-hours telephone number to speak to an emergency officer.

How can the police help?

As we explain above, many forms of domestic violence and abusive behaviour are illegal, and the police can arrest, caution or charge anyone responsible for them.

When this happens, the police will decide whether to:

  • keep the perpetrator in custody
  • release them on bail—usually, there are bail conditions that prohibit them from contacting or going near the victim

Whether the abuser goes to court is for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to decide. If the case does go to court, victims are sometimes asked to give a statement as a witness.

How do I report an incident of domestic violence to the police?

If it’s an emergency, call 999. If it isn’t, call 101. Alternatively, you can go to a police station in person. Most police stations have officers who are trained to deal with cases of domestic violence or abuse.

What are domestic violence protection orders?

Domestic violence protection orders (DVPOs) give police and magistrates the power to protect a victim in the immediate aftermath of domestic violence. These orders can stop the abuser from returning to a property or having any contact with the victim for up to 28 days. This gives the victim time to consider their options and put injunctions in place if they want to (see “How can solicitors help?” below).

Under the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (known as Clare’s Law), a person (or someone concerned for them) can ask the police to check if their partner may present a risk of harm to them.

How can solicitors help?

At Graysons, our solicitors are experts in dealing with all types of domestic violence and abuse and can help victims protect themselves.

We can apply for court orders—known as injunctions—which either require an abuser to do something or prohibit them from doing something. In very urgent cases, we can make these applications quickly and without the abuser knowing.

What types of court orders can you apply for?

We can apply for the following kinds of court orders:

Non-molestation order

This orders an abuser not to harass, pester or intimidate the victim, and includes threatening behaviour and assault. It can also include:

  • texting or telephoning the victim
  • posting comments about them on social networks
  • loitering outside their home
  • getting someone else to harass the victim on their behalf

Occupation order

This decides who can live in the family home and can also order an abuser not to come within a certain distance of the property. It can:

  • allow the victim to stay in the home if their abuser is trying to get them out
  • allow the victim back into the home if the abuser has already thrown them out
  • remove the abuser from the home
  • state that both parties must live in separate parts of the home
  • stop the abuser from entering the surrounding area
  • order the abuser to maintain the mortgage payments for the victim’s benefit

What happens if an abuser breaks the court order?

Non-molestation orders

Non-molestation orders are granted by the family court. These are separate and different to restraining orders.

Breaching a non-molestation order is a criminal offence. In these cases, the police have automatic powers to arrest the abuser and take them to the criminal court for criminal sanctions to be imposed.

If the police take no action (for example, if the Crown Prosecution Service believes there to be insufficient evidence), the victim can take the case back to the family court themselves and ask for their abuser to be punished.

Punishment can include:

  • a fine
  • a prison sentence—this can range from a few days to several months, depending on the severity of the circumstances

Occupation orders

Occupation orders are granted by the family court.

If an abuser breaks an occupation order, the victim can return the case to the family court for the abuser to face further punishment. This might be a financial penalty or a term of imprisonment.

How long does an injunction last?

Ordinarily, injunctions are made for six months, although sometimes the court will make them for 12 months.

Court orders are intended as short-term remedies to allow a heated situation to calm down. Most people find that the initial term is more than adequate to give them the protection they need.

However, if harassment continues, the court can extend the injunction for as long as the victim needs protection and impose penalties for the order having been broken.

How common is domestic violence? What are the national statistics?

The Crime Survey for England and Wales, conducted every year by the Office of National Statistics, found that around 2 million adults aged 16 to 59 (1.3 million women, 695,000 men) experienced some form of domestic abuse in the year ending March 2018.

However, although these statistics are gathered every year, they can’t be considered reliably accurate. This is because not all victims come forward to report incidents to the police, and the ones that do don’t always see their cases go to court and result in a conviction.

As the police and the Crown Prosecution Service are two of the main sources of official figures, the statistics aren’t a fully accurate measure of how frequently people are falling victim to domestic abuse.

Related content

Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme—Home Office guidance

Changes to legal aid for domestic abuse

Controlling and coercive behaviour becomes an offence

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