Kuldeep is a victim of domestic violence. She left her family and friends in India to join her husband in the UK but shortly after her arrival, she realised that she had entered a life of violence and abuse. Before she managed to flee the abusive relationship Kuldeep’s husband violently assaulted and raped her, he told her that he wanted ‘ruin’ her, before sending her back to India.
Throughout her married life Kuldeep was assaulted and raped by her husband and bullied by her mother-in-law. The abuse also included domestic servitude and imprisonment.
Kuldeep’s mother-in-law was very controlling and expected her to complete all the household chores in the early hours of the morning. If Kuldeep refused or answered back, she was reprimanded and humiliated. On occasion, her mother-in-law slapped her if she had hesitated to do as she was commanded. Kuldeep was also excluded from all family conversations and events.
Kuldeep’s husband used her insecure immigration status to legitimise his control over her and constantly threatened to have her deported. Kuldeep was terrified at the consequences of being sent back to India. As a single divorced woman she would have been disgraced, ostracized and stigmatized by the local community for bringing ‘shame’ on her family’s honour ‘izzat’.
Around September 2011, Kuldeep found employment but was initially compelled to hand over her wages to her mother-in-law. Later, her wages were directed into her husband’s bank account to which she did not have any access.
Two years later, Kuldeep’s mother-in-law and husband decided that they longer wanted her. They told her that they were sending her back to India and used violence and threats to force her to leave her employment.
On one occasion, her husband dragged her down the stairs by her arm and slapped her. Following this incident, Kuldeep’s mother-in-law and husband kept her imprisoned in the marital home. When they needed to leave, they would lock the front door ensuring that she did not have an escape route. They would also take the cordless land line phone with them to prevent her from making contact with the outside world.
One evening in September 2013 Kuldeep’s husband went to her bedroom and tried to rape her. Although she tried to resist, she was overpowered by her husband who told her that he wanted to ‘ruin’ her before sending her back to India.
Later that month, during a family gathering at the marital home, Kuldeep overheard her husband and his family plotting to send her back to India. In a state of panic and desperation, she took an overdose. Her sister-in-laws called an ambulance and she was rushed to Ealing Hospital. However, at the hospital, she was forbidden by her in-laws from disclosing the reasons why she had attempted suicide. Her husband also refused to visit her while she was in hospital.
Kuldeep was discharged from hospital two days later and as she had nowhere else to go, she returned to the marital home. However, she was subjected to further abuse. Her mother-in-law taunted her about her attempt to commit suicide and encouraged her to take another overdose. She was forbidden from having any outside contact and was forced to cook her food separately. Unable to tolerate her imprisonment and treatment of domestic servitude, on 4 October 2013, Kuldeep fled from her husband and his family. Her mother-in-law and husband had gone out but had forgotten to lock the front door properly and so she took the opportunity to escape.
Kuldeep stayed with her friend on a temporary basis but her friend was unable to offer her long-term accommodation and support. She was also unable to access any state support including refuge accommodation, because of her immigration status. That’s when Kuldeep was put in touch with Southall Black Sisters (SBS). She sought assistance in respect of her experiences of domestic violence, homelessness, destitution and related immigration matters.
Kuldeep was identified by SBS as highly vulnerable due to her insecure immigration status, suicidal ideation and her heightened sense of isolation.
SBS assisted Kuldeep in submitting an application to the Home Office under the Domestic Violence Concession (a 3 month temporary leave that entitled her to claim basic welfare benefits and apply for emergency housing) Kuldeep was also assisted in instructing immigration lawyers to make an application under the domestic violence immigration rule.
In support of her immigration application, Kuldeep provided evidence of her experiences of domestic violence which included her witness statement, a supporting letter from Southall Black Sisters and a Victim Care Card (confirming a report of domestic violence) from the Metropolitan Police.
Kuldeep was granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK in January 2014, on the basis that she had experienced domestic violence whilst married to a British Citizen.
Kuldeep then approached Southall Black Sisters for assistance in obtaining a divorce from her husband. When she tried to instruct family lawyers for a divorce, she was told that she did not qualify for legal aid as she did not have any of the prescribed forms of evidence to show that she was a victim of domestic violence. Her Indefinite Leave to Remain application and grant of status by the Home Office was not accepted as ‘proof’ of domestic violence.
Cuts introduced in April 2013 removed legal aid from the vast majority of private family law matters but, regulations accompanying the cuts (Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders LASPO) introduced a concession (with evidence based criteria) which allows for legal aid to be available to those who can evidence that they are affected by domestic violence.
However, Southall Black Sisters is concerned that the evidence you have to give to show you are a victim of domestic violence is unreasonably high, restrictive and prescriptive, to the extent that it defeats the very purpose of the concession. It is discriminatory towards all women, but especially BME migrant women with insecure immigration status, who due to their circumstances, are unlikely to have the stipulated evidence. Southall Black Sisters has written to the Legal Aid Agency via solicitors to raise this concern, but have been told that the Legal Aid Agency will not exercise discretion in considering other forms of evidence that are not prescribed by the regulations accompanying LASPO.
In addition to the problems surrounding the evidential criteria, the Legal Aid Agency operate a very narrow concept of the domestic violence in which the perpetrator for the purposes of legal aid in family proceedings must be the same as the perpetrator from whom she is at risk. This not only causes a discrepancy across the Home Office, as a number of bodies including the Crown Prosecution Service and (former) UK Border Agency, share the same broad definition of domestic violence which recognises that violence can be perpetrated by a partner within the context of an intimate relationship or by family members. It also appears to suggest that unless the perpetrator of domestic violence is the other party to whom the family proceedings relate; legal aid will not be granted. Southall Black Sisters are concerned that the narrow definition impacts disproportionately on BME women, given that a large proportion experience domestic violence in their marital homes from their in-laws with or without their partner’s involvement but may not be party to family proceedings.
Pictured Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters
Southall Black Sisters believe that the government proposals are potentially in breach of international human rights law; this includes the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (UDHR) In the case of women fleeing violence in the UK, acting with due diligence to protect their right to life and to be free from torture, cruel and inhuman and degrading treatment means that the government must ensure all women have access to legal and welfare services as well as protection and provide services which help them regain security and human dignity.