Enough is enough: “You can’t put a time limit on domestic abuse”

Source: Alberto Pezzali/AP/Shutterstoc

“Things were good in the beginning,” Tracy recalls, the same way so many domestic violence survivors start their stories. “The first serious incident happened when his grandmother died, he couldn’t cope and head butted me during an argument, causing a black eye. He cried and said he would never do it again.”

Tracy stayed, but the abuse never stopped. Instead, it became more frequent and not only did he use violence, but constantly belittled her with verbal abuse.

As UK law currently stands, most domestic abuse crimes come under common assault, meaning victims only have six months from the date of the crime to report it. Reports made after the six-month window cannot be taken further as the crime has essentially ‘timed out’.

As a direct consequence of this law, around 13,000 cases have been dropped over the past five years according to data obtained from the BBC. From a legal perspective, the argument is that the time limit keeps the justice system moving quickly. However, the situation is often more complex with domestic violence cases.

Four years into their relationship, Tracy was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), a debilitating disease which led her to give up work. “He used to get really angry about me being ill,” she said.

One of her abuser’s most violent outbursts landed him in Wandsworth Prison, after he smashed up their kitchen, set fire to a foam baseball bat, and threatened to hack off her legs with a meat cleaver whilst under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

“By this time my health was worse. I had been diagnosed with a benign tumour in my hip and my mobility was seriously affected. When it went to court, the police had none of the evidence they took from the house the night of the incident and wanted me to give evidence against him,” she explained, “but I couldn't.”

Tracy, now 50, endured 17 years of physical abuse, violent threats, and sexual assault at the hands of her abuser, but it was the psychological damage that kept her from reporting him for so long. She was vulnerable and her abuser knew that. He spent years emotionally manipulating her until she truly believed she couldn’t live without him.

Her story is just one out of thousands of domestic violence victims across the UK. For her, it was her deteriorating health and growing fear that made her even more vulnerable and unable to report the crimes for so long. For others, it is that they are financially dependent on their abuser or there are children involved or they have been alienated from family and friends.

Raven*, 33, was in an abusive relationship for ten years. Now she runs the Instagram page @domesticviolencesurvivorsuk, which is dedicated to helping victims of domestic violence through giving them more information about what domestic violence can look like and how they can get support.

“I definitely think giving victims more time would help,” she said. “I have spoken to lots of victims and most say it took them a long time to come to terms with what had happened. Even telling my story to you now, I actually feel anxious and sick.”

On the day of the final incident between Raven and her abuser, she made a video on her phone. She said that if anything happened to her, he was responsible and told her family that she loved them. “The hardest thing I have ever done was film that video,” she said.

During that final attack, she managed to press call before she dropped her phone. It called her mum, who heard everything and immediately called the police. It’s possible that that phone call is what saved her life.

“When the police arrived, the front door was open, so they ran straight in and caught him with me unconscious, his hands round my throat, and blood everywhere,” she described. “He couldn't deny anything.”

She decided then that enough was enough and found the strength to report him and give a full statement. It went to court, and he pled guilty – an outcome that has been unattainable for so many others.

Figures obtained by the BBC using the Freedom of Information from 30 of the 43 police forces in England showed that the number of cases failing due to the 6-month limit have almost tripled since 2016-17.

This means that even after victims of domestic violence have found the strength to report their abuser, they are let down by the legal system. That was the case for 22-year-old Erica Osakwe, but instead of settling for injustice she decided that the law needed to change.

Erica founded Victims Too, a campaign to extend the time to report abuse to 24 months, in October 2020, after the justice system failed her earlier that year. Police contacted Erica in 2020 after becoming aware of her situation with her abuser due to an unrelated incident,

encouraging her to come forward and promising support, understanding and patience.

“I’d never really thought about coming forward before because I did my research. I was reading other people’s stories and, you know, it’s not very encouraging what I was finding online," she said.

Lack of faith in the system meant that Erica declined to come forward at first, but later changed her mind. She spent five hours at a police station in London answering questions and going into painful detail about the abuse she experienced.

Five months later, after calling the police for updates every two weeks and getting nothing back, Erica was informed by an officer that her report had been filed wrong. She was then told that because it had been over six months since the dated incident there was nothing legally that the police could do.

“How do you listen to someone for so long and write so much information […]. Some way, somehow, he didn’t care enough about my story or my incidents to get it right,” Erica struggled for words as she explained her feelings about their mistake.

When Erica made the first police report, she was legally within the six-month time limit.

“All I knew was that because of this police officer’s mistake, I was now not entitled to any form of justice whatsoever.”

The intensity was noticeable in her voice when she explained: “I needed to channel all this emotion, all this pain, all this heartache. I had to do something with it.”

Five days later, Erica founded the Victims Too campaign, which led to a petition that was passed through parliament to get the time limit to report domestic abuse cases extended to 24 months.

Charities like Refuge, Women’s Aid and the Centre for Women’s Justice supported the campaign, which was recognised in September 2021 by Home Secretary Priti Patel.

Patel has openly backed the law change, which is expected to be put to Parliament as an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The government have not yet made a formal announcement or published the amendment; however, it is expected to come into practice sometime next year.

“There are going to be so many lives that are changed, protected and saved because of this new law, but there is so much more that needs to be done,” Erica admitted. During the conversations with each of these women, they revealed other injustices that they experienced in the early stages of their reports.

Victim-blaming, stereotyping based on race and appearance, and complete lack of victim support from police were very real problems for these women and for so many others.

Erica questioned, quite clearly frustrated, “Where is the training here? Where is the sympathy? Where is the empathy? It just doesn’t seem to exist within the police force.”

Though her questions remain unanswered, one thing is clear. Change needs to happen within the police force as well as in the law.

In an updated report from 2019 on the police response to domestic abuse, HM Inspector of Constabulary Zoë Billingham stated, “Police leaders continue to prioritise tackling domestic abuse within the wider context of supporting vulnerable people and keeping them safe. Protecting vulnerable people, including victims of domestic abuse, is a priority of every police and crime commissioner in England and Wales.”

Women will continue to talk about domestic abuse and the government and police need to keep listening. Now, Tracy is living with PTSD but finally starting to get her life back. Raven is running her Instagram page and continuing to inform and support people on domestic violence issues. Erica, alongside her university studies and part-time job, is planning to expand Victims Too in the future so she can get answers to her questions and continue to help others to get the justice that she deserved.

Visit to find resources linked to domestic abuse and learn more about the campaign.

*Some of the names in this article have been changed for the purpose of anonymity.