The US justice department has confirmed that federal laws giving protection against domestic violence also apply to gays and lesbians.

A memo posted yesterday by the department said prosecutors should enforce criminal provisions in the Violence Against Women Act in cases involving gay and lesbian relationships.

These provisions include those related to domestic violence, stalking and protection order violations.

The Defence of Marriage Act says that federal law can only consider the words “spouse” and “marriage” to relate to opposite-sex couples.

But David J Barron, the acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, said that domestic violence laws also contain phrases such as “dating partner” and “intimate partner.”

“The text, relevant case law and legislative history all support the conclusion” that the law’s criminal provisions “apply when the offender and the victim are the same sex,” Mr. Barron wrote.

Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese said: “Today’s memorandum by the Department of Justice is one step forward in ensuring that LGBT people are protected by our federal domestic violence laws.

“Some of our families, like all Americans, experience domestic violence and those impacted by such violence should enjoy equal protections, and equal dignity, when they seek assistance from law enforcement. We thank the Department of Justice for releasing this important interpretation.”

A 2010 report by the National Centre for Victims of Crime and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programmes found that gay couples are just as likely to be affected by domestic violence as heterosexual couples.