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The Crown Prosecution Service has just released details of the first known conviction under new laws relating to domestic abuse that were brought in at the end of last year.   This seems to be a good time for a recap on what the law says about control, abuse and violence in close personal relationships.

The new cross-government definition of domestic violence and abuse is :

“any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to:

  • psychological
  • physical
  • sexual
  • financial.”

As you can see, the definition now explicitly includes controlling and coercive behaviour. Controlling behaviour is “a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.” Coercive behaviour is “an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.” These are not legal definitions, but may assist to illustrate or highlight certain patterns of behviour in interpersonal relationships that are abusive, and criminal.

In December 2015, section 76 of the Serious Crimes Act 2015 came into force and created a new offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in intimate or familial relationships. It was intended to close a gap in the law around patterns of controlling or coercive behaviour in an ongoing relationship between intimate partners or family members, which previously had not been actionable under the criminal law without serious threats or violence, but which had been acknowledged to cause serious harm to victims. The offence carries a maximum sentence of 5 years’ imprisonment, a fine or both.

There is guidance on what elements need to be present for the offence to be prosecuted. The perpetrator’s behaviour must take place “repeatedly or continuously”. The victim and alleged perpetrator must be “personally connected” during the behaviour, and it must have had a “serious effect” on the victim. This means that the behaviour either must have caused the victim to fear violence will be used against them on at least two occasions, or it has had a “substantial adverse effect on the victims’ day to day activities”. Finally, the alleged perpetrator must have known – or “ought to have known” – that their behaviour would have a serious effect on the victim.

The case that the CPS referred to in its press release was the conviction of a 28-year old man from Liverpool who pleaded guilty to the charge of controlling or coercive behaviour, and also to assault by beating and criminal damage. The CPS’s statement gives a good idea of what coercive control looks like in real life:

“He rarely allowed the victim to go out alone but when she did he would keep track of where she had gone, including making her keep parking receipts.

“He continuously belittled the victim and made her believe she needed only him, pushing her family and friends away. He checked her social media accounts and phone messages, and controlled her appearance by telling her what to wear and changing her hairstyle. After one argument [the perpetrator] physically assaulted the victim who escaped and called the police.

“This behaviour is sadly recognisable as being controlling and coercive. When one person holds more power than the other and creates fear around breaking someone else’s rules, it can strip people of their independence. This is exactly the behaviour that the offence of controlling and coercive behaviour aims to target and eradicate”.

It is good news that there has been a conviction for this new offence, which will raise its profile and show other victims that the police will take them seriously. We hope that news of the conviction reaches those who might benefit from the protection explicitly offered by this new law. It is also worth mentioning that in the immediate aftermath of an incident of an abuse, the police and magistrates can use a Domestic Violence Protection Notice, backed up later by a court order, to ban a perpetrator from returning home or having contact with a victim for up to 28 days. These are also available for cases where it is coercive control rather than violence that puts the victim at risk.

Alongside the protection of the criminal law, family law offers remedies that deal with more practical matters of personal protection. An occupation order governs the occupation of the family home, and can be used (for instance) to exclude the abuser from the home and even a surrounding area, while protecting the victim’s rights of occupation. A non-molestation order prohibits an abuser from doing certain things in relation to a victim, for example using violence, threatening or harassing; they can be tailored to the particular circumstances of the case, and can last for as long as the court deems necessary. Breach of a non-molestation order is a criminal offence. There are also civil and criminal remedies such as restraining orders available in cases of harassment and stalking.

Our very own Adam Moghadas has a special interest in this area of family law. He is the only family law solicitor to sit on Cambridge’s Domestic and Sexual Violence and Abuse forum, and has recently had the honour of being invited to be an Ambassador for the White Ribbon Campaign – men working to end violence against women.

If you are suffering abuse or violence in a family or close personal relationship and are in danger, please speak to the police: you can call 999 if it is an emergency, or 101 if you are currently safe but need help with your situation. If you wish to discuss your options in relation to an aspect of domestic abuse or an allegation of such, please call us on 01223 443333 and make an appointment to speak to Sue, Simon, Tricia, Adam or Gail.

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