CPS given new powers to bring charges if evidence is found of repeated offences within intimate or family relationships
Bowcott, O. (2016). The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/dec/29/domestic-abuse-law-controlling-coercive-behaviour
Coercive or controlling domestic abuse becomes a crime punishable by up to five years in prison from Tuesday, even if it stops short of physical violence.
The Crown Prosecution Service’s new powers have been introduced as Citizens Advice reports a steep rise in the number of victims seeking help over the past year.
The charity said it had supported more than 5,400 people suffering from domestic abuse in the 12 months to October 2015, including 3,000 cases of emotional abuse and 900 of financial abuse.
The new legislation will enable the CPS to bring charges where there is evidence of repeated, or continuous, controlling or coercive behaviour within an intimate or family relationship.
The CPS said abuse can include a pattern of threats, humiliation and intimidation, or behaviour such as stopping a partner socialising, controlling their social media accounts, surveillance through apps or dictating what they wear.
Controlling or coercive behaviour is defined under section 76 of the Serious CrimeAct 2015 as causing someone to fear that violence will be used against them on at least two occasions, or generating serious alarm or distress that has a substantial effect on their usual day-to-day activities.
The new law is likely to generate complex challenges over precisely what constitutes criminal behaviour. The director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, said: “Controlling or coercive behaviour can limit victims’ basic human rights, such as their freedom of movement and their independence.
“This behaviour can be incredibly harmful in an abusive relationship where one person holds more power than the other, even if on the face of it, this behaviour might seem playful, innocuous or loving.
“Victims can be frightened of the repercussions of not abiding by someone else’s rules. Often they fear that violence will be used against them, or suffer from extreme psychological and emotional abuse.
“Being subjected to repeated humiliation, intimidation or subordination can be as harmful as physical abuse, with many victims stating that trauma from psychological abuse had a more lasting impact than physical abuse.”
Cases can be heard in magistrates or crown courts, and the maximum sentence is five years imprisonment. Evidence can include emails, GPS tracking devices installed on mobile phones, bank records, witness statements from family and friends and evidence of isolation.
Polly Neate, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: “Coercive control is at the heart of domestic abuse. Perpetrators will usually start abusing their victim by limiting her personal freedoms, monitoring her every move and stripping away her control of her life; physical violence often comes later.
“Women’s Aid and other organisations campaigned to have this recognised in law, and we are thrilled that this has now happened. It is a landmark moment in the UK’s approach to domestic abuse, and must be accompanied by comprehensive professional training and awareness raising among the public.”
Louisa Rolfe, the temporary deputy chief constable of Avon and Somerset police and the national police lead on domestic abuse, said: “We have seen a substantial increase in reporting nationally with greater understanding of all forms of abuse, not just physical violence.
“The new domestic abuse offence ... is another tool to help the police service and CPS prosecute perpetrators of domestic abuse and protect victims. It will provide more opportunities to evidence other forms of domestic abuse, beyond physical violence. Not only will this encourage more victims to report, we hope, but also the concerned family and friends of victims.”
The College of Policing’s head of crime and criminal justice, David Tucker, said: “The new offence of coercive control presents challenges. It demands much fuller understanding of events that led up to a call for assistance and this can make evidence gathering more complex. However, more importantly, it delivers greater opportunities to safeguard victims and achieve successful prosecutions.”
According to Citizens Advice, 1,500 people sought help for domestic abuse between July and September 2015, a rise of 24% on the same period in the previous year.
Gillian Guy, the organisation’s chief executive, said: “Perpetrators are using coercive control to trap victims in abusive relationships.
“More and more people are coming to Citizens Advice because they are experiencing abuse by a partner or loved one, including restrictions on accessing their own money, forcing them to take on debts and spying on them online.
“The government’s change in the law making coercive control a criminal offence is an important step forward in protecting victims of domestic abuse and helping them find a way out.
“It is also important that the government continues to consider whether victims of all forms of abuse are able to get the support they need, including through the justice system and legal aid.”
Figures from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary show the number of domestic abuse cases reported to the police in England and Wales rose by 31% between 2013 and 2015.