On 18th December 2014 Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced a new domestic abuse criminal offence of coercive and controlling behaviour. The maximum penalty for the new offence will be five years imprisonment as well as a fine. The announcement of this new offence marks a change in the criminal justice system that previously focused on individual incidents of physical violence and did not reflect the on-going psychological harm caused by coercive control in intimate relationships
The move from the Government to criminalise coercive and controlling behaviour came about as a result of views from a recent consultation on whether the law on domestic abuse needed to be strengthened. Eighty-five per cent of respondents felt that the law does not provide sufficient protection to victims, with fifty-five per cent stating that a new offence was required to strengthen and clarify the law on coercive and controlling behaviour in intimate relationships.
The new law will protect victims by criminalising patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour that amount to extreme psychological and emotional abuse, even where this does not develop into serious physical violence. Victims of coercive control can have all aspects of their everyday life dictated and controlled by their partner. The controlling behaviour can start off unknowingly to the victim and then lead to daily intimidation and humiliation to meet the demands of the perpetrator, which leaves the victim fearing for their lives for fear of putting a foot wrong.
The effects of coercive and controlling behaviour can, however, often be more far-reaching and long-lasting, with damage to victim’s emotional and psychological wellbeing, self-esteem and confidence. It is hoped that as abuse of this nature is a criminal offence, it will raise awareness, particularly amongst the young and vulnerable, that such abuse should not be tolerated.
The Home Office state that the offence will be drafted in a way to ensure that it is clear and proportionate, and does not impact on ordinary power dynamics in relationships. Officials also state that there will be a number of ways such behaviour can be evidenced, in the form of emails, text messages and bank statements, which would evidence cases where a victim has been financially controlled.
However it will be extremely difficult to prove coercive and controlling behaviour to the standard required in a criminal court. There are also concerns that existing laws are already not being implemented by the police with a number of high profile cases in recent years when there have been failures to investigate allegations of physical abuse and protect victims. It remains to be seen how the police will investigate and charge in respect of more intricate concepts
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