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WARNING: DISTRESSING CONTENT
Imagine being assaulted by your partner, the person you love and trust most in the world. You finally pluck up the courage to report it as a crime, and tentatively approach the police... only to be told that you're too late.
Currently, in England and Wales, should you need to report a common assault to the police, you would have just six months to do so.
In other words, if you've been in a physically abusive relationship for a number of years, you would only be able to press charges within an extremely limited time frame.
Shocked? Us too.
Right now, Refuge, Women’s Aid and the Centre for Women’s Justice are working around the clock to change this. Leading the call for change is campaigner and domestic abuse survivor Erica Osakwe, 21, who endured a physically abusive relationship for three years.
After finding the strength to report her ordeal to the police, a processing error which led to a long delay meant Erica’s case essentially ‘timed out’. As a result, she has never felt justice, but wants to change the law to stop any other victim having to experience the same painful ordeal.
At present, if survivors do not report their abuse within this time limit, the case is unable to proceed. But the critical barriers which stop people reporting abuse - such as fear, feeling unable to safely flee, or needing time to process what has happened - makes this incredibly difficult.
A new clause in the law would mean the existing six-month time limit for common assault in cases of domestic abuse could be increased to 18 months, giving survivors of domestic abuse more time to access justice.
Here, Erica tells Tyla about the moment she decided she was going to change the law.
"Last year, I went to the police to finally speak to them about my experience," she says.
"Initially, this started off because the police actually encouraged me to do so.
"But for the next five months, I didn’t get any updates. I was repeatedly told someone would get back to me, but nothing happened.
"Eventually, a lead investigator called me and told me that firstly, my initial report had been filed wrong - and had therefore gone completely under the radar - but that because of that, nothing had been done.
"In her eyes, she believed the offence I had reported was common assault, and because it had surpassed six months, there was nothing they could do about it."
Due to the error, Erica was unable to seek justice, something that she has deeply struggled with.
"At the time, I had no idea about the six month limit," she continues.
"It was not mentioned to me once - and I spent five hours telling police everything that had happened to me.
"Talking about my experience was a difficult process and the fact it took five hours shows just how hard it was.
"I was told there was nothing that could be done and the conversation ended there. I tried to call back the next day because I just couldn’t believe this was how it was going to end. I was in disbelief; none of this was my fault, they told me to come forward. I left a voicemail asking if there was any support available, but to this day I’ve never heard from them. I was left out to dry.
"That’s when I had a very tough period in terms of my mental health. The first thing I said after I found out was that I was going to change the law.
"I felt that there was no way this could happen to anyone else. The pain I was feeling at that time, if someone told me that pain would ease, I would never have believed them. I'm stronger now, but then, it was near unbearable what I was going through.
"One of the issues is that the law doesn't take into account those who are in long relationships. For me, I was in this relationship for three years so the only thing they would have been able to investigate in the first place was the last six months.
"The two and a half years prior to that would have gone disregarded anyway. There are people in relationships for years. They can’t get up and leave, they’re not safe, and then by the time they come forward they’re being told 'sorry, you took too long, there’s nothing we can do for you'."
Erica went on to kickstart her campaign - Victims Too - which started with a petition.
"Initially people thought I was very ambitious," she continues.
"I was essentially taking the government head on to change this law. The reaction was slow initially, but it encouraged some people to come forward sooner than they had intended to.
"The last thing you want to do is tell people that if you’re planning to come forward then you better come forward now - it’s not the message you want to give people, but it’s kind of the reality. The most important thing when it comes to dealing with trauma of this magnitude is to take as much time as you need, but the law does not allow that at all.
"When my petition hit 10,000 signatures I got a response from the government. They essentially said at the time that they didn’t have any intention of adjusting that law."
Erica explains that sadly, it was the tragic case of Sarah Everard - who was kidnapped and murdered while walking home in south London earlier this year - that prompted an influx of signatures.
"Unfortunately, the story of Sarah Everard really prompted social media to look into the current laws when it came to abuse and assault against women and girls," says Erica.
At present, Erica's petition has come to an end - ironically, it too timed out after six months - closing with 64,000 signatures. MP Yvette Cooper has since taken the amendment to the House of Commons.
"From my understanding, the government will come back with a proposal and if necessary it will go to the House of Lords. We’re now brainstorming about how to push and raise further awareness so that if it does go to the House of Lords we have the right people behind it supporting us.
"It’s very hard for MPs to sit in the House of Commons and hear about the ordeal of what so many women go through, and say there's nothing they need to do about it. I believe that MPs will find it in themselves to support this and support victims."
To help, Erica explains the most important action we can take is to learn how to support those who have suffered from domestic abuse.
"I’m not going to sit here and say that because of the six month limit you should go to the police tomorrow and share your story because I know how hard that is.
"So the message is never to force people to come forward sooner than they want to but if people learn to support those who need it. It was the best support I could get because I didn’t get if from justice."
Tyla has reached out to the Ministry of Justice for comment. A spokesperson said: “Perpetrators of domestic abuse do untold damage and we sympathise with any victim whose life has been affected by such acts.
“All allegations should be investigated and pursued rigorously through the courts where possible, and there is no time limit on reporting crimes such as bodily harm or those that add up to coercive behaviour.
“We have invested millions into vital services to support victims throughout the pandemic, and continue to urge anyone at risk of harm to come forward and get the help they need.”
To find out more about Erica's campaign Victims Too, you can visit her Instagram here.
If you need information, help or support, you can contact Refuge here.
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