‘I’m from a family of lawyers, so initially I thought I would go to law school,’ Nicole Jacobs tells me via Zoom. She is isolating as a result of a COVID-19 infection so she beams into my home office from her own. Jacobs came to the domestic abuse sector in the UK from a role similar to that of an IDVA (independent domestic violence advocate), but for children, in the United States of America. After an internship at a rape crisis centre Jacobs quickly realised that she wanted to pursue a different role in supporting children and families suffering from abuse.

She eventually rose to a position in which she was responsible for all of the state-wide training for domestic abuse, across the police, health professionals as well as judges. ‘Through that role my eyes were opened to the prevalence of domestic abuse in the homes of all types of families. I never lost my interest in how professionals can support victims and simply ended up moving from one role to the next, eventually emigrating to London after meeting the man who is now my husband, and working at the charity Standing Together Against Domestic Abuse.’

Today, Jacobs still has a keen interest in support for victims, and training for professionals. Her office recently commissioned a report on support at court for victims in both the family and criminal courts. Not only was it difficult to obtain responses from services so burdened by work that filling in a survey on how overburdened they were did not reach the top of the list, but when they did send responses they spoke of a system crying out for trauma-informed practice and long-term funding for support workers such as IDVAs and ISVAs (independent sexual violence advocates).

We speak about the different approaches to domestic abuse that Jacobs saw in the US compared to the UK. ‘I remind people that the first refuges only came into existence 50 years ago, and there has been so much innovation in our approach to supporting victims from then onwards. People often ask me why we are not yet anywhere near where we need to be in terms of our approach to victims of domestic abuse, but the reality is that we are still relatively new to addressing this problem. Often organisations and services really need more training and change because they were never set up with domestic abuse in mind in the first place. Services providing housing or mental health support are only just being recognised as providers who will need training in domestic abuse.’

I ask Jacobs what she is hoping to achieve in her role. ‘Currently, we are working on mapping services and pathways for victims – a further step towards a more cohesive multi-agency approach.’ Jacobs highlights the fact that we are very far off a consistent approach around the country, and that the creation of her independent role will help to address this.

‘Mapping service provision will enable the Commissioner’s office to be much more precise about what services are offered throughout the country, by whom, for whom, and importantly who it is that might be excluded from those services.’ The survey will indicate where Jacobs will try to direct government spending, or review.

‘A key issue is statutory funding. This is the problem with working in a relatively new area. While some organisations have a guaranteed lifeline, these community based services have built themselves up over time, cobbling together budgets from different funding sources, but they have never been part of core budgets. When I was running a charity they had approximately 34 different funding streams which meant constant cliff edges and uncertainty.’

At the moment, Jacobs says, providers who support victims of domestic abuse are being held back in terms of innovation because the sector is in survival mode. She will, I am sure, boost the sector into ‘thrive’ mode, but how long this will take is anyone’s guess. ‘We would like to explore early intervention pathways and new ideas the sector is not yet in a place where they have the ability and resources to be able to cope with that extra workload.

‘Above and beyond the mapping, I see my office as a public face for domestic abuse strategy. I try to bring a diverse range of voices to the table, to bring diverse voices to policy decisions and to decision making with government at a national and local level as much as I can, including across different government departments with which my office interacts.’

The wider policy objectives of the office also include focusing on the experience of victims in the family court, and the experiences of migrant women who have no recourse to public funds (NRPF). ‘Many of these women need help becoming citizens and getting the support they need, but they fear information about their immigration status being passed along, so the intention is to create a sort of “firewall” to protect migrant women.’ The team is relatively small, and so efforts have to be focused and precise in order to have the impact that Jacobs wants.

We circle back to talk about the Safe Lives report. Jacobs has worked in a role similar to that of an IDVA herself so is well placed to talk about it. ‘When people think of a community-based service in this sector they will first think of a refuge, because that’s what they’ve read about in the paper or seen online and that’s where funding from government is often directed. The fact is that most people who are seeking help with domestic abuse will go to a community-based service, with outreach roles, such as IDVAs, and those are the ones that aren’t included in the new statutory duty brought in by the Domestic Abuse Act – yet.

‘In terms of the ISVA/IDVA positions, it is perhaps less helpful to think of them specifically as their acronym. Like community services, these are roles which have built up over time and they tend to focus on the kind of people who are thought to be at the highest risk of harm. The roles are specifically trained and there is accredited training for these roles. They are there to both provide support and advice, and very often very practical support about issues like changing or moving home, or staying and putting in measures to stay at home, looking at what the children might need, or what the police can do. An IDVA/ISVA will assess a person in the round and look at what they need, and then be there to advocate to various systems on their behalf. This can include court-related support, and the report shows the need for further provision for this type of support for victims.’

Jacobs explains that the backlog in the criminal courts and contingency planning is focused on who would be at court already, what needs to change is consideration of the victim. ‘Victims are usually in touch with a service at the point of police call-out and that service will be the service who they would want to be supporting them through court, to help them to seek justice. There are so many logistics involved with domestic abuse cases and to assume that community services will be able to do this work in addition to the work they already do is completely unrealistic when they are not commissioned to do it. It may not be possible for a community worker who supports 30-40 people to spend an entire day or two at court at the expense of the other people they are supporting.’

Jacobs stresses the seemingly small tasks performed by an IDVA/ISVA which can make an enormous difference to a victim of abuse at court such as checking if they have eaten something before the court day starts, checking the timetable for the day, being ‘a little bit assertive’ to make sure that things are running smoothly, and explaining the roles of the different people in the room, ensuring that accurate information about key places to avoid are passed on for protective orders.

Further, the more time an IDVA spends at court, the better they will know who to seek out and who to talk to, and the better outcomes we will see for victims of abuse. ‘This support does not provide a biased outcome, it just means that the court has information in front of them which allows them to make better decisions.’ The more we discuss the more the need for consistent support and funding becomes clear. ‘If more IDVAs are provided, it should not be a postcode lottery as to where this support is provided. Importantly, it’s also not necessarily a big ask to ensure that accurate information is passed on, it’s about where we place the importance in our communications.’

Is the Commissioner hopeful that we will start to see these changes being made in the near future? Surprisingly, she is. ‘I think that the case is getting made and that it is becoming more common to see these roles within criminal courts, unfortunately not nearly so much within the family courts. The Ministry of Justice is doing good work in this area but they have their hands tied in terms of funding and yearly spending reviews which come back over and over to haunt us in terms of limiting our progress.’

We have a chance to speak briefly about the recent Channel 4 Dispatches Programme about the Family Court. Jacobs was filmed for the programme but the interview with her was not featured in the end. Jacobs tells me that she has met with the Judicial College recently, and she thinks that they are prioritising training.

‘However, it’s also true that you could be in front of a judge who doesn’t fully understand the nuances of domestic abuse, the two situations are not mutually exclusive, and there is much more work that needs to be done with regard to training magistrates.’ Jacobs is eager to sit in on some training, to have a better sense of what the training is, and to encourage more local multi-agency training.

The Harm Panel Report has identified the need for some form of oversight of domestic abuse cases by the Commissioner’s office. ‘We plan to gather data about how domestic abuse is being dealt with within the Family Court and to create a public-facing accountability mechanism. So we are holding a series of round tables across a whole range of people who work within the family courts to figure out the range of information that they would need to provide such oversight. It’s clear that, anecdotally, we have cases where things are proceeding relatively well versus cases where things are going really badly wrong. With data gathered by the Commissioner’s office there will be an opportunity to address some areas where things do go badly wrong.

‘One of the things that my office is trying to do is influence the Department of Education in the kind of work that could be being done in schools. The PSHE curriculum as of this year was supposed to be starting to teach healthy relationships but the implementation of this teaching has been slow due to the pandemic. We need a much clearer kind of investment from the Department of Education. I would like to investigate how schools are doing with the new, mandatory part of the curriculum and where can we see really excellent practice.

‘I envisage a whole new area of work taking place in this area, which is also linked to violence reduction units which are being set up to investigate the root causes of crime where there is not yet nearly enough focus on domestic abuse and children who come from violent homes.’

In Jacobs’ view this is a critical link, and from reading Nazir Afzal’s recent book, The Prosecutor, it appears senior Crown Prosecutors would agree.

‘This is one of the reasons why I’ve been arguing for the amendment to the Police Crime and Sentencing Bill. Within the Bill, there is a serious violence duty, which requires areas to plan about the serious violence in their area and the way that it is set out in the Bill allows people to decide what the local priorities are. I argue that sexual violence, domestic abuse, and domestic homicide should be part of that definition at the start because it’s so prevalent and so intertwined.’

I ask Jacobs if she has a final message for the Bar. ‘One message I would love for lawyers to hear is how important it is for them to understand domestic abuse themselves, because they are the conduit to explaining to the court. It’s so important to feel confident that you are able to explain it and also understand it well enough to talk to your client about their experience.’