What is domestic violence?

The Government’s definition of domestic violence covers controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between people aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality. It includes the following types of abuse:

  • psychological
  • physical
  • sexual
  • financial
  • emotional abuse.

Domestic violence is most commonly experienced by women and carried out by men, but also happens in same sex relationships. Men can also experience domestic violence.

Many kinds of domestic violence such as physical assault, wounding, sexual assault, rape, threats to kill and harassment are criminal offences.

What is gender violence?

Gender violence includes domestic violence, harassment and stalking, rape and sexual assault, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, honour-based abuse and trafficking.

Options available to people affected by domestic violence

If you are the victim of an abusive relationship, you should get advice on your options, which may be to:-

  • report the violence to the police
  • leave home temporarily
  • leave home permanently
  • stay in the present home and get the person who is harming you to leave
  • take legal action.

Reporting the violence to the police

Many kinds of domestic abuse are criminal offences and the police can arrest, caution or charge the perpetrator. Most police stations have Domestic Violence Units or Community Safety Units with specially trained officers to deal with domestic violence and abuse. You should call 999 in an emergency or 101 in a non-emergency or you can attend a police station in person to report an incident. Find information on all the UK police websites through the UK Police Service Portal at www.police.uk.

If the police arrest and charge a perpetrator, they will decide whether to keep them in custody or release them on bail. There will usually be conditions attached to their bail to protect you from further violence and abuse. Make sure you ask for your crime reference number which you may need if you contact other agencies for help.

The Crown Prosecution Service will make the final decision on whether a perpetrator is prosecuted. Find more informatin on the criminal prosecution service on the Women’s Aid website at www.womensaid.org.

The police can also give you advice on crime prevention and getting a police marker on your address, so an officer can get to your home as quickly as possible.

The Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme

Under the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme, you can find out about a partner’s history of domestic violence from the police. The police will give you information if it is necessary to protect you. The police can also warn you about an individual if they think you are at risk of domestic violence.

Domestic Violence Protection Notices and Orders

If you have suffered or been threatened with domestic abuse, the police can issue a Domestic Violence Protection Notice and then apply to the magistrates’ court for a Domestic Violence Protection Order.

A Domestic Violence Protection Order can protect you from further abuse, and if you live with the perpetrator, ban them from returning to the home and contacting you. If the perpetrator does not keep to the Order, they can be arrested and brought before the court.

A Domestic Violence Protection Order lasts for up to 28 days and gives you time to explore your options and get further support.

Finding somewhere safe to stay

If you are a victim of an abusive relationship you may need somewhere safe to stay, either alone or with your children. The options are:

  • stay at home if you think this is safe
  • stay with relatives or friends
  • stay in a women’s refuge. This is only an option for women (with or without children)
  • get emergency accommodation from the local authority under homeless persons law – this will usually mean a bed and breakfast hostel
  • get privately rented accommodation.

Women’s Aid Refuges

Women’s Aid Refuges are safe houses run by and for women suffering domestic violence. Refuges provide somewhere safe for women and their children to stay and allow some time and space for the woman to think about what to do next.

Staff at refuges are specialised in dealing with domestic violence, and so can give a lot of emotional and practical support, for example, advice on benefit claims, which solicitors to use and, if necessary, how to contact the police.

To find out your nearest refuge with spaces available, you should contact the National Domestic Violence Helpline, (see Domestic violence and abuse – organisations which give information and advice for their contact details). Helpline staff will do their best to find you somewhere safe to stay that night even if the local refuge is full. They are also happy to talk to women about any questions they have about refuges.

Going to the local authority, or Housing Executive in Northern Ireland

Local authorities have a legal duty to provide help to certain people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness. You will qualify for help if you are eligible for assistance, legally homeless or threatened with homelessness and not intentionally homeless. You must also be in priority need. The local authority may also investigate whether you have a local connection with the area.

You will normally be considered to be legally homeless if it is not reasonable for you to occupy your home because of the risk or fear of domestic violence.

Local authorities, or the Housing Executive in Northern Ireland, should deal sympathetically with applications from people who are in fear of violence. You can ask for a private interview, with someone of the same sex, and can take a friend with you for support.

The local authority (Housing Executive in Northern Ireland) may have a duty to provide emergency accommodation for you while it decides whether you are legally homeless.

If it is outside of normal office hours, you should telephone the local authority’s emergency out-of-hours number for help with emergency housing.

For more information about homelessness and the local authority, see Finding accommodation.

Going to privately rented accommodation

If you decide to go into privately rented accommodation you will be unlikely to be able to arrange it quickly. This is really only an option for people who have time to plan their departure and can afford this accommodation.

Longer term solutions

Once you have found a safe place to stay short-term, you will need to think about what to do in the longer term. You will need to consider:-

  • whether you wish to permanently separate from your partner. You should seek legal advice, see under heading Getting help from a local domestic violence service or a solicitor
  • whether you want to take action to keep the violent partner away from you. This could include getting an injunction to protect yourself from more violent behaviour (known as a non-molestation order), or a court order to sort out who can stay in the family home, for example if you want to stop your violent partner from returning home (known as an occupation order). You can find more information about injunctions on The Rights of Women website www.rightsofwomen.org.uk . If you’re considering these options, it’s best to seek legal advice, see under heading Getting help from a local domestic violence service or a solicitor More about occupation orders
  • housing. Your legal rights to the family home will depend upon the type of housing, the legal status of your relationship and whether or not you have children. You should get legal advice to ensure that you do everything possible to protect rights to the family home. You should seek advice about the family home even if you are leaving permanently because, if your partner sells the home, you may lose money and possessionsMore about relationship breakdown and housing
  • children. If you have children you will need to decide if you are taking the children with you. It may be unsafe to leave them behind. You may need to use the courts to resolve who the children should live with and with whom they should have contact. You should seek legal advice, see under heading Getting help from a local domestic violence service or a solicitor
  • money. You will need to sort out your benefit entitlement and tax arrangements and whether or not to apply to court for maintenance for yourself. You may also want to apply to the Child Maintenance Service for them to arrange maintenance for your children. An organisation called Refuge has produced a financial guide for women experiencing domestic violence in England and Wales, available at www.refuge.org.uk 

More about child maintenance

If you need further information and advice, you should consult an experienced adviser, for example, a solicitor, law centre or Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.

Getting help from a local domestic violence service or a solicitor

If you need further help, you should get advice from an independent domestic violence adviser or a solicitor who is experienced in family law.

You can find details of your local domestic violence service on the Women’s Aid website at www.womensaid.org.uk.

Local Women’s Aid groups, the police, or women’s centres usually know of local solicitors who are both experienced and sympathetic.

A local advice agency, such as a law centre or Citizens Advice Bureau, should be able to help you find a local solicitor who is experienced in this area of the law. In England and Wales, you can also look on the Law Society website at www.lawsociety.org.uk.

You may be able to get help with your legal costs if you qualify for Legal Aid.

You should make an appointment as soon as you feel ready, and could take someone with you for support the first time you go. The initial interview will probably last quite a long time, during which the adviser should discuss with you what courses of legal action are open to you.

Victims from abroad and domestic violence

If you came from abroad to join someone as a wife, husband, civil partner or cohabitee, and you can no longer stay in the relationship because of domestic violence, you may be able to apply to UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) for settled status (indefinite leave to remain) under the domestic violence rule.

If you need financial help, you can apply to the UKVI under the Destitution Domestic Violence (DDV) Concession for a temporary extension of your leave. If you are successful, you will be given 3 months limited leave so you can stay in the UK and apply for welfare benefits and housing while a decision is made on your application for settled status.

You can find more information on applying for settled status on the GOV. UK website at www.gov.uk.

You can find helpful information about the housing rights of women from abroad fleeing domestic violence on the Housing Rights Information website at www.housing-rights.info

Perpetrators of violence

There are several specialist organisations which can help violent people who want to stop being violent. Some are self help groups run by others who have had experience of violent behaviour, others may be run by trained counsellors. It may also be possible for you to get help through your GP.

Financial abuse

Financial abuse happens where a perpetrator uses financial means to control you and may include any of the following:

  • stopping the victim working
  • controlling the household finances including wages, benefits and bank accounts
  • forcing the victim to hand over wages and money
  • persuading or forcing the victim to take out loans and credit in her/his name.

If you have been pressurised or bullied to take out loans or credit in your name, the debt may be unenforceable. This is a complex area and you will need to get advice.

More about if you have signed an agreement to borrow money when you didn’t want to

The domestic violence charity Refuge has produced ‘You can afford to leave: a financial guide for women and children experiencing domestic violence’. The leaflet is on the Refuge website at www.refuge.org.uk PDF .

Your local Citizens Advice Bureau can give you advice about debt problems. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB

More about dealing with debt

Honour-based abuse

Honour-based abuse is defined as an incident or crime which has or may have been committed to protect or defend the honour of the family and or community. Honour-based abuse happens where a person is punished by their family or community for doing things that are not in keeping with the traditional beliefs of their culture. For example, you may suffer honour-based abuse because you:

  • resist an arranged marriage
  • resist a forced marriage
  • have a partner from a different culture or religion
  • live a westernised lifestyle
  • want a divorce.

Honour-based abuse may include domestic abuse, sexual or psychological abuse, assault, forced marriage or sending someone back to their country of origin.

The Honour Network Helpline is a specialist organisation which advises victims and survivors of forced marriage and honour-based abuse.

More about organisations which give information and advice on domestic violence and other types of abuse.

Forced Marriage

A forced marriage is where you are pressurised into it against your will. You may be emotionally blackmailed or physically threatened usually by your family. It is not the same as an arranged marriage where both parties agree to get married.

In England and Wales, forced marriage is a criminal offence. If someone forces you into marriage, they could go to prison for up to seven years.

More about forced marriage

Harassment and Stalking

Harassment happens when you receive unwanted behaviour from another person which alarms or distresses you. Examples of harassment include malicious phone calls, threatening texts, threatening and insulting language and damage to property.

Stalking is a form of harassment and may include behaviour such as following, contacting or attempting to contact you, monitoring your email and internet, watching and spying on you and other similar behaviour.

It is a criminal and civil offence for another person to harass or stalk you. You can report the matter to the police. Many police forces have a specialist police officer who deals with harassment or stalking.

You may also be able to get an injunction in the civil courts to stop the harassment or stalking taking place and claim damages. If an harasser breaches an injunction, it is a criminal offence.

You can get further information and guidance on how to deal with harassment and stalking from the National Stalking Helpline. Go to www.stalkinghelpline.org.


Human trafficking involves moving adults or children from one place to another into exploitative conditions such as prostitution or other sexual exploitation and forced labour using threats, force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception or abuse of power.

Victims are often trafficked to a foreign country where they cannot speak the language, have their travel and identity documents removed and are told that if they try to attempt an escape, they or their families will be harmed.

Find out details of organisations which help with trafficking

If you take legal action to protect yourself or your family from domestic violence or abuse, you may qualify for legal aid. The income of an abusive partner will not be taken into account when deciding whether you qualify for legal aid.

Legal aid helps you with your legal costs including advice and help if you have to go to court.

More about help with legal costs.

Further information

Leaflets and fact sheets

Three Steps To Escaping Domestic Violence’ is a leaflet aimed at women and children in black and minority ethnic communities. It also contains information that can help victims of domestic and sexual violence from any nationality or ethnic background. It’s available in several languages.

Rights of Women have produced a number of factsheets on legal issues affecting women, including factsheets on domestic and sexual violence.

The Women’s Aid website provides a wide range of resources to help women and young people, including the following:

The Survivor’s Handbook’ provides a range of information including legal and housing advice, and tips on creating a safety plan. It is available in 11 languages and in audio.

Digital Stalking: A Guide To Technology Risks For Victims’ gives practical advice on reducing the risk of being stalked online. It comes with a series of mini-factsheets containing simple hints and tips.

The Hideout offers support to children and teenagers affected by domestic violence, or who are in a violent relationship themselves.

Further help

If you need help to recognise whether you are being abused, there are many organisations that can give you confidential advice.

More about organisations which can help you if you have suffered abuse