Domestic abuse is one of the most pressing and serious issues facing the UK today. The Armed Forces is no exception.
Domestic abuse describes any violence or abuse that is used by someone to control or obtain power over their partner. It can include physical, sexual, psychological, verbal, emotional and financial abuse. If you alter your behaviour because you are frightened of how your partner will react, you are being abused.
Many people experience domestic violence and other forms of abuse without ever being physically abused. Non-physical forms of abuse can be as destructive and as undermining as physical violence.
Whilst the vast majority of those who experience domestic violence – and all forms of gender-based violence – are women, it can affect anyone. It is against the law.
Very particular difficulties and challenges arise when dealing with domestic abuse in the context of the Armed Forces. Victims of domestic abuse who are serving, or are the partner of someone who is serving, can quickly become very isolated. Their lives are likely to be entirely wrapped up in the services, their friends will be other service families, their colleagues are probably serving and their children’s schooling will be affected by their or their partner’s service. They may lose their accommodation if they report a serving partner. They may be afraid that their partner will lose their career and everything that depends upon it.
A lot of guidance that is designed by and for service men and women directs victims to either Army Welfare Services or the chain of command. But there may be very good and understandable reasons why a victim may not wish to do that. The Service Justice System Review identified concerns about the way in which the service police were responding to reports of domestic abuse. It recommended that all such cases should be handled by the civilian police, in the UK and that systems for collecting data on reports of assaults in a domestic context should be overhauled. It was also noted that some cases had been dealt with by COs not as domestic abuse offences, but rather as ‘disgraceful conduct’ matters meaning that appropriate safeguarding and risk management could not be undertaken. We have received reports from victims of domestic abuse reporting that the Armed Forces own welfare services do not take reports of domestic abuse as seriously as they should, and that Service Police staff are not prioritising these kinds of offences. We have heard about cases where commanding officers are dealing with allegations of domestic abuse without referring them to the Service Police at all.
The Armed Forces do not publish information about levels of domestic abuse within the service community. Figures made available via Freedom of Information Act requests do not include allegations of domestic abuse which are dealt with by commanding officers and not the Service Police. Its true extent within the Armed Forces therefore remains hidden.