August 2014 saw the announcement by Teresa May that the government was to launch a consultation into whether there is a need for a criminal offence of coercive control in cases of domestic abuse. This comes after a campaign spearheaded by Paladin the National Stalking Advocacy Service, Women’s Aid, and the Sara Charlton Charitable Foundation. Some critics argue that there no need for a specific offence as the law is fine as it is and somewhat contradictorily that a law would be impossible to implement due to difficulties in obtaining evidence.
Most of the people that I speak to are stunned to discover that coercive control isn’t already a specific offence, particularly when you discuss examples of the behaviour that constitutes coercive control. Whilst coercive control is contained within the government definition of domestic violence the criminal law has no offence to adequately deal with it. Coercive control is not about couples falling out – we all do that. Coercive control is a sustained campaign of psychological terrorism which is the lifeblood of domestic violence. Domestic violence is not a one-off act – it is a series of destructive acts designed to break down the victim’s confidence and will. Coercive control is the regulation of the minutiae of someone’s daily life e.g. what they wear, where they go, who they speak to, what they eat. This type of abuse inflicts long lasting psychological harm on the victim and is the behaviour my clients feel affects them the most – more than physical violence alone. It is coercive control that enables perpetrators to get away with committing physical and sexual violence against the victim and precisely why the victim feels that there is no escape as their will is already destroyed by that stage.
Coercive control isn’t something that can be committed “by accident” as some commentators have claimed. This behaviour would be obvious to everyone as being damaging to the victim. I have clients who are forced to sleep on the floor, eat their meals from a dog bowl on the floor, have their every move tracked through their mobile phones and vehicles, their money taken from them so that they are forced to steal tampons as they are reliant on their partners who refuse to give them money which is rightly theirs.
When these women do go to the police they are told to ‘come back when he hits you’. This is something that I hear every single day. In almost 20 years of working exclusively in domestic violence, stalking and forced marriage I have never known a prosecution for this type of behaviour whilst the parties are still in a relationship. Once they separate then suddenly it is treated as harassment or stalking which is a criminal offence. There have been a handful of cases which have been brought to court only to be thrown out due to the fact that the parties were in a relationship at the time of the behaviour and accordingly this could not be deemed to be harassment or stalking!
Coercive control needs to be a specific criminal offence so that it is clear to the police, the CPS, the judiciary, victims and perpetrators that it is illegal. The government has already announced that emotional abuse of children will become a criminal offence so how can they ignore coercive control of (in the main) women? Forced marriage is now a criminal offence which was needed and could not be adequately dealt with under stalking or harassment laws. The same is true of coercive control.
As for claims of it being impossible to prove – this is what some said in the 1990’s around the criminalisation of rape within marriage and has been said about historic sexual abuse. We still get convictions in these cases so why not with coercive control? There is now more and more evidence able to be brought and it is regularly used in the civil courts. Victims sometimes manage to record the abuse, tracking software can be found on phones and devices on cars, bank statements can show money immediately disappearing from the victim’s account into other accounts and there are witnesses far more often than we think. The criminalisation of coercive control will assist in protecting victims by making them realise that it is a crime, may make perpetrators think twice and make witnesses more likely to speak out. Society as a whole needs to combat this and the law needs to facilitate it too.
See Rachel discuss the issue on BBC Breakfast:
Rachel Horman: Feminist legal blog by family legal aid lawyer of the year Rachel Horman. Mainly domestic abuse /forced marriage and violence against women. Sometimes ranty but always right…..