At the end of 2015, new legislation came into force introducing a new offence for ‘controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship’.
This is a hugely important step, that will help clarify what constitutes domestic abuse, making it easier for individuals to seek help.
One of the most difficult aspects of challenging domestic abuse is helping someone who has experienced such behaviour to identify it as ‘abuse.’
Of its very nature, the relationship between a perpetrator and their victim is founded on the often misguided concept of love.
While the move away from the term ‘domestic violence’ towards ‘domestic abuse’ has assisted, many individuals struggle to define their experience as abusive, particularly if it does not involve physical violence.
The historical lack of a ‘domestic violence’ definition for use in the Family Court has been unhelpful and this new criminal offence will bring clarity. The Statutory Guidance for the offence includes a non-exhaustive list of examples of coercive control, for instance where an individual:
- Takes control over aspects of another’s everyday life, such as where they can go, who they can see, what to wear and when they can sleep
- Repeatedly puts them down such as telling them they are worthless
- Carries out financial abuse including controlling finances, such as only allowing a person a punitive allowance
Such examples will help individuals to identify which behaviour is unacceptable and seek help if appropriate.
The introduction of this offence will also assist with obtaining both injunctive relief and longer term assistance in the Family Court. It should make it easier to obtain a non-molestation or occupation order if there has been no violence but there are a number of other elements of coercive control. This will help individuals to escape abusive relationships before the behaviour escalates.
Furthermore, it should help police to assist those who are unwilling or unable to seek legal assistance.
Increased understanding of such abusive relationships should also help judges to identify individuals who use the legal system to continue to control their former partner, for instance, by repeated Court applications, and parents who use the arrangements for children to continue a pattern of controlling behaviour.
It is essential that the very system designed to protect those who have experienced domestic abuse is not open to violation by those perpetuating such abuse.
Domestic abuse rates have been increasing since 2009 and estimates suggest that 1.9 million people suffered domestic abuse last year. I hope that this new offence brings a glimmer of hope to such a wide-reaching, complex issue.
Eileen Macqueen heads the family law team at Devonshires Solicitors, one of the UK’s leading full service law firms. Based at the firm’s office in Finsbury Circus, London, Eileen has qualified as a solicitor-advocate (with Higher Rights of Audience) and can therefore undertake advocacy on behalf of her clients.
She is also a member of Resolution, an organisation of 6,500 family lawyers and other professionals in England and Wales who believe in a constructive, non-confrontational approach to family law matters.