Opinion: A wider definition of domestic violence reflects reality

The recent Supreme Court judgment in Mihret Yemshaw v Hounslow ­London ­Borough Council provoked a strong reaction.

Helen Creanor
Helen Creanor

The Daily Mail referred to a “sweeping ­ruling”, warning that “men and women who shout at their partners risk being thrown out of their homes”. While certainly eye-catching, are these headlines correct?

This case considered the definition of ’violence’ in Section 177(1) of the Housing Act and whether this should be limited to physical acts or could be extended to a wider range of behaviour.

In this case Yemshaw left her house with her children and sought assistance from the local housing office, saying that her husband would shout at her in front of the children and that she was scared he might hit her. The housing authority in this case felt that there was a low risk of domestic violence against her and ­therefore that it was reasonable for her to continue to occupy the home. This meant that Yemshaw had, in the housing ­authority’s eyes, made herself intentionally homeless and that it had no duty to provide her with alternative accommodation.

The Supreme Court held unanimously that the Housing Act’s definition of domestic violence should include not just physical violence, but also threatening or intimidating behaviour and other abuse that may give rise to the risk of harm.

The importance of this ruling is that a wider definition of violence than that ­originally applied by the housing authority could mean that Yemshaw had not in fact made herself intentionally homeless and would therefore be entitled to be rehoused. Yemshaw’s case will now be reconsidered by the housing authority with the wider definition.

It is not difficult to see why this decision is controversial. The intuitive definition of violence is that it involves a physical assault and the worry expressed in the Daily Mail and elsewhere is that, apart from bending the meaning of violence to breaking point, this decision could erode civil liberties and result in innocent people being evicted from their homes.

It is also concerning that, if court ­decisions on domestic violence are ­regarded as absurd, this could denigrate the importance of domestic ­violence in the eyes of the public and even reduce the respect given to judicial decisions. Another worry is that the issue of domestic violence could become subject to ridicule.

Lady Hale, who gave the leading ­judgment, noted that, in fact, the ­dictionary definition of violence includes “strength or intensity of emotion; fervour, passion”. She added that our understanding of domestic violence has developed to cover a wider range of behaviour than may have been the case in the past.

It is questionable if this judgment is ­really so revolutionary. The Daily Mail commented: “Until now violence has always had to mean physical assault.” ­Perhaps this is true concerning the Housing Act, but in other areas the definition of domestic violence has already moved on.

A victim of domestic violence can apply to court for a non-molestation order, which prohibits the perpetrator from carrying out further acts of abuse when there has not necessarily been violence.

ady Hale noted that the definition of domestic violence in ’Domestic Violence: A National Report’ includes “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”.

It is nothing new that abusive ­behaviour is not always physical assault. Victims of emotional or psychological abuse can suffer as much as victims of physical assault, and a wider definition
of domestic violence could mean the ­definition will be flexible enough to reflect the reality of the problem.