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What is domestic violence? 

Domestic violence is the physical, emotional, sexual or mental abuse of one person by another, with whom they have or have had an intimate relationship.  Most reported cases of such violence are by men against women and we refer to the abused as female in this leaflet.  However, women too can be guilty of violence against men and this information is applicable to both male and female domestic violence.

Legal Rights 

Being assaulted by someone you know or live with is just as much a crime as is violence from a stranger. Everyone has the right to protection under criminal law. 

The criminal courts are not the only place where people can get protection from domestic violence. In recent years, there have been significant improvements in the law allowing people to get protective orders against their abusers (which you can get in the magistrate’s court). The Family Homes and Domestic Violence (NI) Order 1998, which introduced many of the improvements, is now the main statute dealing with protective orders, but other aspects of the law also have a role to play.”

Who does the 1998 law protect? 

Under the new law, the court can make an order in favour of a much wider range of people, called “associated persons”.  As well as spouses and cohabitees it includes: 

  • Other family members

  • People who are parents or have parental responsibility for the same child

  • Former spouses or cohabitees

  • People who used to be engaged to each other (they will need proof of engagement).

  • People who are living in the same household other than as lodger or tenant”.  This could cover, for example a group of friends sharing a house or a gay or lesbian couple.

What can the court do for them? 

Under the new law, the court has two main powers.  It can grant a non-molestation order, which prohibits the other party from molesting the applicant or another associated person.  Molestation is a wider term than violence (although violence is included).  It includes any behaviour which will upset or annoy the applicant, so it may include things like stalking, making nuisance phone calls, or damaging their property.  The applicant does not have to prove that the other party has been violent; but the evidence does have to be sufficient for a judge to hold that an order is necessary to protect the applicant.

The court’s second main power is to grant an occupation order.  This is available to a narrower range of people than a non-molestation order, because it can involve putting the other party out of their home.  It is available to a partner, cohabitee, former partner or former cohabitee or to someone who is an “associated person” and has an interest in the house – like being a co-owner or having their name on the rent book. 

Does the new law just deal with violence in the home? 

The Family Homes and Domestic Violence Order does not deal with all cases of “non-stranger” violence, but equally, is relevant to family disputes which do not involve violence; for example, where there is a dispute about who should live in a house.  However, the applicant will have to show that the situation is quite serious to get an order putting the respondent out of the house 

How can I apply for one of these orders? 

It is advisable to go to a solicitor who specialises in family law. The Law Society or Women’s Aid can help to find one in your area. You may be eligible for legal aid.  

What if there are children in the family? 

When one parent has been violent to the other, a non-molestation order is in place and they have separated, the possibility of future violence is one which the court will have to consider when making a contact order on behalf of a violent parent.

Where social services have become involved because someone in the house is physically or sexually abusing a child, the court can order the abuser to leave the house, provided that there is another appropriate adult prepared to remain in the house with the child.   

What happens if an order is broken?

Breach of a non-molestation order or an occupation order is a criminal offence, with a maximum penalty of three months in prison or a substantial fine.  The police have the power to arrest someone caught breaking an order, and will not hesitate to do so.   

What happens if I leave my home due to violence? Will this affect my rights? 

Of course a court order is not the answer for everyone; some orders are breached, and some people may know that seeking an order will exacerbate an already dangerous situation.  If you feel so unsafe that you feel it necessary to leave home, you should do so.  You may feel safer living with another family member or friend. Women’s Aid can also provide emergency accommodation for women and their children.  If you are thinking about leaving home you should consider the need to make arrangements for your children too, and should seek advice from a solicitor.  However, the fact that you leave your home to escape violence by your partner will NOT affect your property rights in the house in subsequent divorce proceedings. 

What happens if someone is too frightened to bring court proceedings? 

If someone is too frightened to bring court proceedings, they should still seek advice and support.  Women’s Aid or other support groups will have met many people in the same position in the past, and most police stations now have a Domestic Violence Liaison Officer who will also be able to give advice about safety.    

How can the police help? 

No other agency has the authority of the police as law enforcers.  Effective intervention by police officers can break the cycle of abuse and misery.  It can act as a deterrent to perpetrators.  There are specialist trained Domestic Violence Officers who will be able to offer support and advice and they can be contacted through your local police station.  They will also be able to offer support during any legal proceedings.

Arrestable offenses- what happens next? 

The more serious offences are tried by County Courts or the Crown Courts.   While the magistrates courts are said to deal with less serious offences, they have power to hear cases up to and including fairly serious crimes of violence, and many domestic violence cases are heard here.  If an abuser is taken before a magistrate following arrest, then the court will either remand him in custody or release him on bail. This will depend on the seriousness of the charge and other factors, as well as police recommendations.  Bail conditions can be set which can include staying away from the victim or the victim’s home and surrounding area. 

In an emergency DIAL 999 

Housing rights 

If a person is being abused by a partner or ex partner they have the right to leave home and get temporary accommodation.  This will not affect their right to return home or rights in the tenancy or ownership of their home. 

A woman (with or without children) fleeing from an abusive relationship can get emergency or temporary accommodation by contacting Women’s Aid or their local Housing Executive Office or the Homeless Advice Centre.  

What can the Housing Executive do? 

The N.I Housing Executive has a legal duty to provide temporary accommodation when a person becomes homeless due to domestic violence. Get advice on what to do from Women’s Aid, the Citizens Advice Bureau or a solicitor. 

If a person decides not to return home they need to think about finding a permanent home. They can apply to the NIHE for permanent housing. Someone who has had to leave home because of violence is likely to be given priority, but will be placed in a queue with the other priority cases someone who has had to leave home because of violence is likely to be given priority, but will be placed in a queue with the other priority cases. 

Women living in B&B accommodation, refuges and hostels maybe eligible for housing benefit.  The Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) administers this benefit.  Claims should be made as soon as possible as they cannot be backdated. 

Financial Help 

The financial position of abused women remains unsatisfactory, as most families have to depend on the state benefit system.  For women in refuges and others facing marital breakdown, sorting out the financial aspects can be a daunting and time-consuming exercise.  It is important that women are informed of their entitlements and supported through the process. 

The Citizen’s Advice Bureau, Women’s Aid and the Department of Health & Social Services can provide advice on benefits.   Information is also available from local independent advice centres and some women’s groups.

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