Home Secretary Theresa May has announced a new domestic abuse offence of coercive and controlling behaviour. This legislation is intended to extend the law to cover forms of abuse that are currently “slipping through the net”. The offence is intended to come into force towards the end of 2015 and will carry a sentence of up to five years in prison.
Domestic abuse affects over 1.2million Britons every year, with two people being killed every week as a result of violence, reports the British Crime Survey. Government research has revealed that a significant majority of respondents do not believe that the current laws are sufficiently protecting individuals who are at risk of domestic abuse that does not necessarily involve violence. The research has prompted the development of legislation which will criminalise behaviour that does not currently fall within any criminal offence.
Currently, a court would generally require evidence of specific incidents of physical harm in order to prove that a criminal act has been committed. Inevitably, this incident-focussed recognition of “harm” overlooks the psychological trauma that a victim may be subject to and creates a culture that allows for such abuse to take place. Although the offence of “actual bodily harm” has already been amended to include shock and nervous conditions, it does not afford adequate protection to victims of severe forms of psychological abuse.
Sustained patterns of emotional and psychological abuse can leave a lasting impact on a victim’s mental health and well-being. Coercive and controlling behaviour includes subjecting an individual to humiliation, intimidation, deprivation of their independence and controlling their access to finance. Generally, this kind of abuse begins on a small scale and grows exponentially, meaning that victims do not become aware of it until it has reached intolerable levels.
Chief Executive Polly Neate of Woman’s Aid considers coercive control to be at the heart of all domestic abuse, and is working closely with the government to ensure its effective criminalisation. This will involve an assessment of police responses to complaints of domestic abuse, and further training on how to recognise and deal with victims of such abuse. Victims will be encouraged to maintain a record of incidents which have caused them to feel intimidated, humiliated or threatened in any way in order to evidence the sustained psychological abuse.
In order to effect these changes in law, the Home Secretary is chairing a national oversight group with a focus on improving how the police deal with domestic abuse. It is hoped that the introduction of this long-awaited law will dramatically alter the current culture of domestic abuse, and ensure that victims are offered relief from a controlling and oppressive environment.