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Definition of domestic violence

This content applies to England & Wales

The term ‘domestic violence’ is capable of bearing several meanings and applying to different types of behaviour which can change and develop over time.

Domestic violence can take many forms: physical injuries caused by punches or beatings, sexual abuse and rape, mental cruelty in the form of humiliation, degradation, bullying, insults or harassment. Frequently, domestic violence is a combination of physical, sexual, psychological and/or emotional abuse. Domestic violence can occur between partners in a relationship, between people living in the same household, between adults and children, or between people who were in a relationship or used to live in the same household.

In family law

In family law the term ‘domestic violence’ has been interpreted to include physical violence, threatening or intimidating behaviour and any other form of abuse which, directly or indirectly, may have caused harm to the other party or to the child or which may give rise to the risk of harm.[1]

In the homelessness legislation

The term ‘domestic violence’ is used in the Housing Act 1996 and is defined as sub-category of violence as violence or threats of violence from a person associated with the victim.[2] The Supreme Court held that for the purpose of the homelessness legislation the term domestic violence should be interpreted in the same way as in the family law context.[3] Physical violence is not necessary to fulfil the definition. The Homelessness Code of Guidance states housing authorities should take account of the cross-government definition of domestic violence and abuse, below.[4]

See the Violence from any person page for more on the definition of violence in the context of the homelessness legislation.

Cross-government definition

With effect from 31 March 2013, the following wider definition and new title was agreed among government departments. Although this is not a statutory or legal definition, it aims to facilitate understanding of victims and perpetrators of domestic violence/abuse and inform policy developments, the identification of domestic violence cases and coordination of multi-agency prevention and intervention services.  

Domestic violence and abuse

Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality.

The abuse can encompass but is not limited to:

  • psychological
  • physical
  • sexual
  • financial
  • emotional.

Controlling behaviour is a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.

Coercive behaviour is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.

This definition includes so called ‘honour’ based violence, female genital mutilation and forced marriage, and is clear that victims are not
confined to one gender or ethnic group.

[1] Family Division Practice Direction (Residence and Contact Orders: Domestic Violence and Harm) (No 2) [2009] 1 WLR 251.

[2] s.177(1A) Housing Act 1996.

[3] Yemshaw v Hounslow LBC [2011] UKSC 3.

[4] paras 21.3 and 21.4 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018.

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