The reality of living with, leaving and surviving domestic abuse

I’ve written this in response to Tim Farron’s article regarding domestic violence:

This is a subject very close to my heart, as I have been through this and come out of the other end. The problems started in 2008 when my now ex-husband lost his mother. He subsequently took this out on me, both verbally and physically. As a result I lost all confidence; I lost my career, my self-esteem and I was totally alone. Had I told anyone we still would have been alienated; we needed help as a family, not judgement from those around us.

Anyway, eventually I left. Not because it got worse, but because I could not forgive him for what he had done. Because I was perceived as not being in any immediate danger I found myself homeless. That’s ok. I understand that there are people who needed more immediate shelter. I had no access to funds. He had all the money. I had nowhere to go. I sofa-surfed; homeless. Living out of a holdall at the tolerance of others.

Eventually I scraped the money together for a deposit on a flat. I could rent a bedsit, which I am still renting. I was still contributing to the marital home and had little access to any money (my £1000 savings was barely cutting it, all my cash was tied up in the home). I spoke of the prospect of selling but he was never “ready” to sell. Then, after a year of polite negotiations, he told me I wasn’t entitled to half our flat (bearing in mind I wasn’t planning on looking at his savings and assets, just the home) and he told me to get a solicitor.

At this point my take-home earnings were about £1000 per month. Out of this came my rent (£550 per month), bills and council tax. I was also trying to pay off my credit card debt which I had accumulated as a result of needing to set up a home again (I was allowed 2 pieces of furniture and my clothes from the marital home). This left me with £200 disposable income; not including food. I had no car and never went out. I guessed my life was miserable enough for legal aid. I guessed wrong.

The government currently defines domestic violence as:

Any incident of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between adults who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality.

 Yet, in order to qualify for legal aid, somehow domestic violence then has to be quantifiable. In order to qualify, the abuse had to have occurred in the last 2 years and had to be proven either by my attendance at the doctors (with the necessary injuries; seriously, who would go to their already stretched GP with bruises) or with crime numbers from the police. I hadn’t been allowed to call the police (he would wrench the phone out of my hand) so that ruled that out. It didn’t matter that I was still suffering psychological and financial abuse due to his complete refusal to sell the property. No one seemed bothered that I was scared of him, despite being “safe”. Still no one is really concerned with the nightmares that haunt me to this very day, or my ongoing depression. At this point there seemed no way out; I could divorce him after two years but would never get access to the money I needed unless I employed a solicitor, which I could not afford because I did not have any money. Understandably I went into emotional meltdown; as a result I nearly lost my job as my employer (I worked in the NHS) was less than sympathetic to my situation. I was suicidal; I felt I was a burden to my friends and family (who I couldn’t afford to see anyway) and would be better off dead.

Yet, something inside me would not give up. I worked all the overtime I could get my hands on. I sold any possession I had that was of any monetary value to help pay for a solicitor (although as an aside; I was doing this at the same time as going through the compulsory mediation now enforced upon us by the government; I was forced to pay for this on the proviso I would get the money back but the agency took the money I was making from those sales as income). I took on a second job, then a third, then a fourth. My credit card debt went through the roof. Financially I was killing myself but I knew it had to be done.

My ordeal started in 2008. It is now November 2015 and it is still going on. I have won my case and am preparing to both evict him from the property and sell it. I am £25,000 in debt and counting. I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones. What if I had children? Yes I wold have been entitled to state help but not as much as I can earn by working myself to death. This is just not a situation which can carry on. To add insult to injury; the court system is so slow. Every document needs personal service (which is no help when your former spouse goes into hiding I can tell you). Hearings have to be booked months in advance. I was backed into corners I did not wish to pursue; for example starting committal proceedings because he didn’t attend court when I had no care about whether or not he was a felon, just that I could access my flat! The justice system feels more like a licence to print money rather than a way for people down the bottom of the pile, like me and my ex-husband, to actually access justice.

Personally, I feel more needs to be done than just shelters. Leaving in these circumstances can be very sudden. You go from having a home (albeit an unsafe one) to having a very uncertain future. More needs to be done so these people aren’t left in shelters for months on end whilst housing is found. The housing needs to take weeks, not months. This cannot be means tested; many women are asset rich but cash poor because it’s all tied up in the family home, or they have little or no access to the bank accounts. Surely this can be looked at again once all other matters have been resolved and the person fleeing a violent situation has access to their own money again. Legal aid should be automatic for both sides in the dispute. I say this because it should speed up many of the legal processes and ensures that both sides are represented fairly. From personal experience my own case went on longer than necessary because my ex-partner refused to get a solicitor and co-operate, had he got one automatically he would have been forced to proceed if nothing else. It is essential to remember that actions such as non-participation are also forms of control in themselves; this is an element of the proceedings which needs eradication. Control is such an important element in cases of domestic violence; it is essential that the victim of domestic violence feels as if they are gaining some control back; it is important that all service providers remember that some forms of domestic abuse would never warrant a call to the GP or to the police. More needs to be done to support the victim emotionally both during and once they are in a safe environment. Ironically I felt more anxious away from the situation; my ex-husband became my own personal bogey-man. With every solicitor’s letter or new court date I was on the alert for an attack (which never came) and the bad dreams reliving every scene still wake me at night. There were times he could have killed me and it is only with hindsight that I realised this, thus heightening the anxiety. The mental health of victims needs to be addressed and we need to accept that a six-week course of therapy is just not going to be enough.

Lastly, and probably most controversially, I feel the way we view the perpetrators of domestic violence needs to be addressed. It is all too easy to brand them as “wife-beating scum”. These people need help. They need support to stop this behaviour. They need intensive therapy to get to the cause of their behaviour. It is also important to remember that this is not just an issue for men; women can be the perpetrators too with men often going unrecognised as silent victims. Shaming this issue underground does not help anybody. The only way domestic violence can ever be eradicated is by stopping it at source; I feel the best way we can do this is through the use of extensive behavioural therapy and support. It goes without saying that there are underlying reasons why people feel the need to harm those nearest to them and without addressing them the person will carry on with their unreasonable behaviour.

In conclusion, I feel many improvements need to be made with regards to the way both the victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse are treated. Without support for both sides the cycles of abuse will continue to perpetrate to the detriment of all involved. We as Liberal Democrats need to look at the ease of access to justice, as well as not labelling or indeed demonising those involved. The broader areas to consider incorporate housing, welfare and mental health amongst many others. It is essential to remember that domestic violence can happen to anyone at any time; irrespective of age, gender, background, education, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

* Betty is a pseudonym. The author is known to LDV.

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  • @ Betty “I guessed my life was miserable enough for legal aid. I guessed wrong”.

    Those of us who opposed the Coalition well remember a debate at Conference on Legal Aid on 18 September, 2013. Despite the Conference vote, the coalition proceeded with cuts to legal aid. To quote the Guardian,

    “The justice minister in charge of legal aid reforms, Lord McNally, a Liberal Democrat, told the conference that party members needed to face some “hard facts” and establish a stable level for legal aid in the future”.

    Later, in 2014, Simon Hughes promised to review legal aid. Nothing happened.

    It’s time to cast the mote out of our own eyes.

  • I’m wincing to read the story.

    People are right to connect this with the scandal of legal aid being so limited. But I’d also like to pick up the other side of this one — it is bringing to mind the phrase “psychiatric injury” — that is, a situation where someone who does not have a chronic mental health diagnosis ends up with their mental health suffering as a result of hellish circumstances. There’s more to be done on mental health, but this is an example of why Norman Lamb’s work on mental health is so important. “Betty” is absolutely right that a six week course of therapy is not enough.

    I hope Betty’s honesty in this article will enable people to use it to argue for more help for victims of domestic abuse, for improvements in legal aid and for improvements in mental health provision.

    I realise that people worry about public expenditure, but Betty’s figure of £25000 of debts (and rising) rings scarily true, and I fear is not the end of the story. If funding for the services she needs were better, my guess is that she would not be in this financial situation, so “austerity” is not “saving” money, but pushing the expenditure onto people who can’t afford it. I can’t help thinking that if the appropriate services were in place she would be earning rather more, and so paying more tax, which would cover the cost of the services she has needed in this crisis.

  • @ Mark Argent.

    I completely agree with you, Mark. I’m wincing too. The issue is what in political terms can be done about it. I stand by my view that changes to legal aid compounded “Betty’s” problem, and we as a party very much owe her on this one. One hopes the policy issue can be pursued in both the Commons and the Lords.

    The same Lib Dem Minister responsible for cutting legal aid (and telling Conference to ‘face hard facts’) was reported this month as having taken 818 trips using the Government Car Service during the last Parliament – at an estimated cost of over £80,000. It was the highest number of journeys by anyone – even though he stepped down as Justice Minister in 2013 to take up his current position as chair of the Youth Justice Board,

    At the Youth Justice Board, he has just made a cut of £ 9 million to youth offending team (YOT) grants to meet a £13.5m savings target, despite local councils warning the move would be counterproductive. (Public Sector Executive, 6 November, 2015). According to the Youth Justice Board Annual Report, the chair is paid £ 400 per day (plus expenses) for two days per week.

    It would be appreciated if there was some accountability amongst our unelected parliamentarians.

  • A really engaging and heart wrenching article, thanks Betty. Normally LDV articles on this topic don’t go much beyond sexually dichotomous debate, whereas I felt like this one illustrated a little of what it was like to have circumstances unexpectedly change for the worse and not have any social support.

    This is another reason harping on about our record in government irritates me, I saw a family disintegrate because of a lack of legal aid. We destroyed the lives of many innocent people in government, all the time there were folks on here were making justifications for it. I can’t see how anyone can justify the demeaning way our society treated Betty in her hour of need. You may think your circumstance, gender or age means that this subject would never affect you, certainly some commentators here seem to think white men are immune to all issues, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that this could happen to anyone! We must make better provision to help people escape abusive situations, and we shouldn’t automatically demonise the abuser – people need help. Perhaps if the husband had counselling after his mum died none of this would of happened.

  • Betty, thank you for writing that; it must have been very difficult. David is right that this is, in part, our fault. For that I am truly sorry. You also make an excellent point about non-participation. A friend of mine has a legal bill from similar circumstances and similar behaviour from her ex which got as high as £80,000 at one point, and she DOES have children, and she didn’t get legal aid either.

    Frankly, it disgusts me.

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