Domestic Abuse, Housing and Homelessness in Scotland: An Evidence Review

There has been little research on the relationship between domestic abuse, housing and homelessness, especially in the Scottish context. This review provides some secondary analysis of relevant homelessness and housing statistics to provide a more in-depth overview of the scale of domestic abuse as a contributory factor to homelessness in Scotland.


Since devolution, domestic abuse has been recognised and prioritised by the then Scottish Executive through the establishment of the Scottish Partnership on Domestic Abuse resulting in the National Strategy to Address Domestic Abuse in Scotland. The widespread nature of domestic abuse was acknowledged as a problem affecting not only women, but children too, with debates framed around support, choices and needs:

All women and children who experience abuse must receive support and services to enable them to identify their needs, to make choices and to have these needs addressed as well as to participate in developing services to address their needs in the future. It should be recognised that children require services which meet their specific needs (Scottish Executive 2000).

By 2006, as part of the 'Getting it Right for Every Child Implementation Plan' (2006a) the Scottish Executive announced the 'Domestic Abuse Better Outcomes for Children Pathfinder Pilot Projects', with 'new ways of ensuring agencies work together to provide better support and intervention for children affected by domestic abuse to be piloted across Scotland' (Scottish Executive 2006c).

Following the establishment of the pilots in 2006, a National Delivery Group for Children and Young People Experiencing Domestic Abuse was established and responsible for their monitoring. In June 2008, the group published the 'National Domestic Abuse Delivery Plan for Children and Young People' a three-year delivery plan 1 for engaging young people experiencing domestic abuse and promoting good practice.

Action under Priority Area 8 of this plan will focus, in the short-term, on improving understanding through identifying the barriers which prevent women and children from accessing appropriate levels of coordinated support to stay safely in their own homes or to make the move into alternative accommodation without facing additional economic or social disadvantages. From this evidence base, future action will focus on developing measures which enable local authorities and relevant agencies to deliver better joined-up responses to the housing and support needs of those affected by domestic abuse.

More recently, the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities ( COSLA) published a joint report, 'Safer Lives: Changed Lives A Shared Approach to Tackling Violence Against Women in Scotland' which promotes a shared approach and understanding to guide the work of all partners. This includes Community Planning Partnerships' and Local Authorities under the terms of the Concordat and to support joined-up policy and practice around the issues of:

  • Prevention: to prevent, remove or diminish the risk of violence against women and its impacts on children and young people;
  • Protection: to protect women from victimisation, repeat victimisation or harassment by perpetrators and protect the children and young people affected;
  • Provision: to provide adequate services to deal with the consequences of violence against women and children to help them to rebuild their lives , and
  • Participation; to ensure policy making and practice development around violence against women is shaped by experience, needs and views of those who use services.

A thorough examination of national policies and strategies concerning tackling domestic abuse can be found in the following publications:

Communities Analytical Services (2010) Reporting on Progress Towards Equality of Opportunity for Women and Men Made by Public Authorities in Scotland: Ministerial Priorities for Gender Equality: Tackling Violence Against Women: A Review of Key Evidence and National Policies. Scottish Government.

Reid Howie Associates (2010) Reporting on Progress Towards Equality of Opportunity for Women and Men Made by Public Authorities in Scotland: Ministerial Priorities for Gender Equality: Tackling Violence Against Women. Scottish Government.

Domestic Abuse & Housing Legislation/Policy

In Scotland, housing and homelessness legislation provides protection for some groups by allowing priority access to social housing. This includes women fleeing domestic abuse who are defined as unintentionally homeless. The following section summaries the legal rights of women in this situation.

Scottish Housing Legislation

Prior to the introduction of the Homelessness etc (Scotland) Act 2003, a two tier system operated for women in terms of priority need. Women with children who experienced domestic violence were a recognised priority category in practice, as defined by Section 25 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987. However, women without children did not have the automatic priority but could be assessed under Section 25 as 'a person who is vulnerable as a result of…or other special reason'.

The 1997 Homelessness Guidance however, went some way towards reducing this distinction by stating that 'women suffering, or in fear of, violence may be vulnerable even if they have no children'. By 1999 it seemed that the vast majority of local authorities in Scotland followed this advice. The Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 strengthened the rights of homeless households more generally and introduced a requirement for local authorities to produce homeless strategies which could be integrated with their domestic abuse strategies.

The progression of the housing legislative framework continued with the Homelessness (Scotland) Act 2003, which further increased the safety net for homeless households, including phased expansion of the priority need categories leading to eventual abolition of priority need in 2012. This expansion included 'persons at risk of domestic abuse' as a priority category, making this priority explicit. The Act also defined domestic abuse by referring to the meaning set out in the Protection from Abuse (Scotland) Act 2001:

' abuse' includes violence, harassment, threatening conduct, and any other conduct giving rise, or likely to give rise, to physical or mental injury, fear, alarm or distress;

'conduct' includes-

a)speech; and

b) presence in a specified place or area'.

This recognised that domestic abuse should include therefore, persons experiencing non-violent domestic abuse and abuse is interpreted as extending beyond physical violence to included threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional).

Shelter and Scottish Women's Aid point out 2 that these developments mean that the statutory protection provided by the housing legislation for women experiencing domestic abuse is now relatively robust. Women who are homeless as a result of domestic abuse now have legal claims to entitlement to housing. The problem lies in the gap in housing provision to meet this legal entitlement and difficulties women and their families' face in accessing housing services.

Local Authority Policies and Procedures

It has not been possible within the constraints of this evidence review to evaluate the policies of all local authorities or Registered Social Landlords ( RSLs) in Scotland and no systematic reviews have been found that have done so. It is clear however, that there is considerable discretion provided for in the legislation that is exercised by local authority housing services in practice. Research by Edgar in 2003 3 identified some examples of local authorities that have adopted COSLA Guidance on Preparing and Implementing a Multi-Agency Strategy to Tackle Violence against Women (1998) to develop corporate strategies and to guide procedures within service departments including housing services. More recent analysis 4 of local authority Single Outcome Agreements ( SOAs) however found that:

  • Nine local authorities made no reference to domestic abuse against women at all within their SOAs.
  • Only five made specific reference to domestic abuse as a priority and had developed outcomes they wanted to achieve.
  • 21 local authorities made no specific commitment to addressing domestic abuse with their local partnerships.

Civil Remedies

The other key housing-related legislation intended to assist abused women is the Matrimonial Homes (Family Protection (Scotland) Act 1981. This legislation provides orders excluding 5 violent parents from the family home and for interdicts 6 restraining their behaviour including with powers of arrest (the Protection from Abuse (Scotland) Act 2001 now provides a simpler procedure for obtaining powers of arrest).

There is evidence to suggest that these orders are rarely used effectively. 7 In reality, it is difficult to obtain an exclusion order that has the adequate force to protect women while they remain in the matrimonial home due to a lack of victim-centred legal processes, and even when orders have been obtained, they are often not enforced adequately. 8 Moreover, recent evidence 9 suggests that Sanctuary Scheme, users for example, were not willing to pursue legal remedies through civil or criminal process such as exclusion orders, as many worried that this might anger the perpetrator and make the situation worse, whilst others felt that the perpetrators would simply ignore the interdicts or sanctions.

In the context of access to housing, there is some evidence that in the early 1990's, particular local authorities used the existence of these civil rights highlighted above to deny abused women assistance under the homelessness legislation (finding them to be intentionally homeless if they did not exercise them). 10 The Homelessness Code of Guidance made it clear however, that this practice was unacceptable. Women and children cannot be assumed to be safe whilst remaining in the family home even if the abuser is legally excluded. Evidence suggests that few local authorities persisted with this practice even as far back as 1994. In the Scottish Women's Aid's response to the consultation on the Ministerial Statement on the Abolition of Priority Need they recommended commissioning research to identify why exclusion orders are not successfully implemented and make recommendations to ensure they become a practical tool to allow women, children and young people to remain in their homes safely. At the time of writing, Scottish Women's Aid are undertaking research into the use of exclusion orders.

Homelessness Prevention Policy

More recently, homelessness prevention policy and the needs of specific high risk groups such as those suffering from domestic abuse, has gained impetus. Another element of the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 places a statutory requirement on local authorities to prepare strategies for preventing and alleviating homelessness. Since the introduction of this Act, prevention is playing a central role in the ways that homelessness is tackled and for achieving the 2012 abolition of priority need target. In June 2009, the Scottish Government and COSLA's prevention of Homelessness Guidance 11 was published in order to give more clarity on acceptable interventions due to concerns from Local Authorities that some prevention activities could be interpreted as "gate keeping". 12 The guidance recognises those suffering from domestic abuse as a particular high risk group for homelessness prevention and pre-crisis activity. It sets out the following good practice guidance in relation to responding to these risks:

  • Social landlords should review and where necessary amend allocation and transfer policies to ensure they meet good practice and consider if rent arrears and repairs procedures are unfairly penalising women affected by domestic abuse issues.
  • Local Authorities and Registered Social Landlords ( RSLS) should liaise with specialist support agencies such as Women's Aid groups to ensure that women are able to access appropriate legal advice and that they have support to engage with it to seek appropriate legal remedies.
  • Good practice principles for engaging with women affected by domestic abuse should lead to the development of guidance for staff, for example, interviewing techniques and an emphasis on sensitivity and confidentiality. It also states that it is likely to be helpful in cases of domestic abuse to include a clause in allocations policy for housing the perpetrator of the abuse should they apply for re-housing.
  • Joint multi-agency training on the causes and impacts of domestic abuse is viewed as particularly successful.

The guidance cites two best practice examples which are detailed below. One of these, Edinburgh Safe as Houses, aimed to keep women within their existing accommodation, whilst the other, Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conferences, focussed more on sharing knowledge and taking action on the basis of this.

Edinburgh Safe as Houses13 A project funded by the Homelessness Prevention Innovation Fund developed by the City of Edinburgh Council to assist in preventing homelessness for vulnerable women and children who are at risk of domestic abuse. It was broadly based on advice, support and practical safety measure and adaptations to their existing accommodation. Safe as Houses was the first sanctuary scheme for women experiencing domestic violence in Scotland. The project was developed as part of an advice-led approach to homelessness prevention in the city and by using the housing option interview approach, the project was keen to ensure that it should not be seen as a deterrent to presenting as homeless. The project was relatively small scale and was operational for eight months during 2007-2008. At time of writing the Edinburgh Safe as Houses service is not currently in operation, however, there are plans to have it up and running in the future as part of various mainstream work within the housing options service and in partnership with the community safety service rather than a specific service.

Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conferences ( MARACS) In North Lanarkshire and Glasgow, MARACS bring together a wide range of agencies to discuss local cases and share knowledge and information about the victims and perpetrators. The most important aspect of the process is to agree the definitions of risk for women concerned and to act accordingly.

Supporting People and Domestic Abuse

Supporting People ( SP) was an integrated policy and funding framework in Scotland designed to provide Housing Support Services to a range of vulnerable people over the age of 16, remain living in their own homes. This was administered as a ring fenced grant to Scottish local authorities who have the responsibility for assessing local need and providing these services, or purchasing Housing Support Services from external providers in order to meet these needs. From April 2008 the ring-fencing was removed from the Supporting People grant as was the requirement to report in detail on funding spent on Housing Support Services. The aim in removing ring fencing is to allow greater flexibility in the use of funding and lift unnecessary accounting and reporting burdens. Funding is now no longer restricted to the 21 prescribed housing support services.

Scottish Women's Aid has recently raised concerns about the removal of ring fencing from SP funding. SP from 2003 has been the only funding stream for the provision of a range of specialist domestic abuse housing support services in Scotland. As well as providing support services in refuge accommodation for women who are homeless as a result of domestic abuse, SP was also used to fund services to resettle women in their move into a new home and to support them while they remain in their community. Scottish Women's Aid have raised concerns that because this funding is no longer ring-fenced, some local authorities, left to local decision making, will fail to commission the necessary frontline services.

In 2007-08, 201,241 individuals were assisted through Supporting People funding 14. The number of clients receiving housing support during 2007/8 for the client group 'people at risk of domestic violence' was 4,818, 2% of total people receiving housing support. 15

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