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The Laws and Rules Around Leaving an Abusive Relationship

Weightmans seeks to explore the causes and legal rights people have across England and Wales when seeking to leave an abusive relationship.

Initially the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the rising cost of living, have highlighted and contributed to an increase in people feeling trapped and unable to leave abusive partners. Data reveals that 500 searches for “how to leave an abusive relationship” occur each month in the UK, up 4% from last year, while data from ONS reveals the number of police-recorded domestic abuse-related crimes in England and Wales increased by 7.7% in 2022.

As we begin to see a shift in the number of reported domestic abuse incidents across the UK, Weightmans seeks to explore the causes and legal rights people have across England and Wales when seeking to leave an abusive relationship.

Domestic Abuse Over the Last Three Years

In 2023, many people are still dealing with the aftermath of COVID-19 and looking to rebuild and restore their lives after the global pandemic, with data revealing over 1,200 searches for ‘domestic violence helpline’ each month across the UK. 

Although recent ONS data suggests there was no significant change in the prevalence of domestic abuse experienced by adults between March 2020 to 2022, COVID-19 impacted people's ability to report domestic abuse to the police and therefore the data may not be reflective of actual numbers.

Research by Womens Aid reveals from the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown many domestic abuse charities experienced a rise in calls from victim-survivors and witnessed domestic abuse cases increasing, with domestic homicides more than doubling in the first three weeks of the nationwide lockdown. Furthermore, the pandemic as a whole made it harder from a practical perspective to leave abusive relationships.

The Increase in Britons Trying To Divorce From Abusive Relationships

Data reveals there are over 1,900 searches for “How to get a divorce UK?” each month across the UK. Although this statistic isn’t unique to divorce from an abusive relationship, it emphasises the sheer volume of enquiries about the process. Furthermore, it’s important to highlight that although divorce and civil partnership dissolution in England and Wales is now on a ‘no fault’ basis, before the law changed the majority of divorces cited the other party’s ‘behaviour’ as a reason for the relationship breakdown.

Cost of Living Crisis

The cost of living crisis is a worrying time for many people, especially those experiencing domestic abuse. Victim-survivors of domestic abuse may have to decide between remaining in an unsafe home or leaving with limited finances, with the risk of poverty and potential homelessness. Although this has always been the case for some sections of society, the cost of living crisis is worsening the issue for many more who are struggling financially.

Furthermore, the cost of living crisis has also exacerbated financial abuse and control, with data from Aviva revealing 12% of perpetrators in an economically abusive relationship took control of what victim-survivors bought, 9% had their debit or credit card used without their knowledge, 7.5% received pocket money from their own bank account and 7% had contracts, as an example for a mobile phone, taken out in their name for the perpetrator to use.

Following this, the latest ‘Women and Money’ research indicates that only half of UK women (51%) feel financially independent today, therefore, with added pressures due to the cost of living crisis, leaving and divorcing from an abusive partner now seems harder than ever. However, it is possible.

​​The Steps To Take and Your Legal Rights When Leaving an Abusive Relationship

Seek legal advice from a solicitor, Citizens Advice or a domestic abuse charity: It’s important to speak to an expert who understands the law, can advise you on strategy and procedure, and help you to prepare the necessary paperwork. That being said, many seeking to leave an abusive relationship may have been economically abused, or may not feel that they have the financial means to take the first steps; by contacting an organisation such as Women's Aid, victim-survivors will be supported emotionally, practically and in some cases financially, and will be able to put a necessary plan in place to begin the process.

Seek a protection order via a Non-Molestation order, Occupation order or police protection: A non-molestation order is a type of injunction used to prohibit a person from taking certain actions designed to ‘molest’ or harass the applicant or a relevant child. Molestation is not defined but in practice, such orders can be used to protect someone from violence, harassment, and threats. 

An occupation order is a type of injunction which regulates who can, or cannot, live in the home or certain parts of it. They are serious orders usually made in the context of domestic abuse as they may suspend a party’s right to occupy their own property - legal advice should be sought for this. 

Furthermore, there are different protective orders which can be issued by the Police and Courts to protect victim-survivors of domestic abuse, these include Domestic Violence Protection Notices and Domestic Violence Protection Orders, which can allow for protective measures to be put in place for a victim-survivor following a domestic incident of violence or the threat of violence involving a perpetrator over the age of eighteen.

Organise finances and housing: Divorcing couples can seek a financial settlement to help them move away from economic dependency on their former partner. Legal advice should be sought to explore options, including housing, sharing in any capital resources, responsibility for debts and consideration given to pensions.

Non-married couples: Although the legal rights and processes for unmarried couples differ from those who are married or in a civil partnership, the law can assist, particularly if there are children. Legal advice should be sought and options explored.

Divorce in England and Wales: Since the introduction of the ‘no fault’ divorce law in April 2022 it means victim-survivors of abuse in England and Wales can file for divorce without having to allege fault. The no-fault divorce process should help make the process less traumatising as victim-survivors no longer have to prove, show evidence and examples of, or relive any of the abuse. 

Antony Ball, Partner at Weightmans comments, “The repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic are still being seen today within abusive relationships, along with this, the current added pressures of the cost of living crisis are potentially exacerbating domestic abuse across the UK which in turn means more are seeking to leave abusive relationships. 

Leaving an abusive partner may seem very challenging at times and is an extremely brave and courageous thing to do. It’s important that during this time you lean on your support networks, which could be family, friends, and colleagues, as well as speak to organisations such as the Citizens Advice Bureau or Women's Aid. Finances and independence can be hugely impacted during an abusive relationship and leaning on these networks can help with this.

We know just how hard this process might be for victim-survivors but with the right support and guidance there is a light at the end of the tunnel”.


If you need advice regarding the steps to take and your legal rights when leaving an abusive relationship, register for a free consultation with one of our expert family law solicitors.

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