On 29th December 2015 the new offence of "Coercive or controlling behaviour in an intimate or family relationship" came into force. Dr Kate Cook of Manchester Metropolitan University is researching coercive control in relationships and reflects on the impact of this reform.
Workers within Women's Aid and other charities which support survivors of domestic abuse have long known about the importance of "emotional abuse" within the lived reality of relationship violence. The use of manipulation, threats, bullying and other forms of coercion are often important in maintaining the power that an abuser holds over his family.
Research over the past 30 years or so has shown that the majority of domestic abuse is perpetrated by men against their female partners and other family members. Of course there are cases where the tables are turned and women behave in abusive ways towards men and there is also abuse in some same-sex relationships. However most of the most frightening cases involve male abusers and female targets and every year the official statistics show that the most common killers or women, in England and Wales, are their own male partners (in 2014-15 186 women were recorded as homicide victims, 81 of these (49%) were killed by partners or ex-partners).
The new law on coercive control creates a possibility of prosecuting abusers before violence has started, or before it has escalated to such serious levels. Where prosecution goes ahead and where the person or people being victimised also receive support at the same time, then this can create a catalyst to end the violence.
Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 says that it is an offence to repeatedly behave in a controlling or coercive way towards someone, in an intimate or family relationship. The two people have to be in a relationship or live together, for section 76 to be applicable and the behaviour has to have had a serious effect on the victim. The law measures this by looking to see whether the person being victimised was made to fear violence at least twice or whether the distress they have experienced has had a substantial adverse effect on their everyday life. The maximum penalty under this section is 5 years' imprisonment, showing that this can indeed constitute a serious crime.
The range of behaviour that can be caught under this section is almost endless, but examples might include bullying; humiliation and/or threats. It is well known, for example, that abusers often limit their partner's access to friends and family. This can be achieved by controlling access to telephones and social media, by not allowing a partner to leave the house alone, and so on. That kind of limitation on someone's ability to be in contact with others could now be a criminal offence.
Law Firm Simpson Millar solicitors, made a Freedom of Information request about the use of the new offence during the first 6 months of operation. They found that only 65 people were charged with the new offence during this period, by police forces in England with 11 of those police forces had brought no charges at all.
Information on cases that have resulted in prosecutions remains scant. However Graham O'Shea was imprisoned for 4 years earlier this month, using this new law. He had refused to let his female partner wash, he took her money off her, monitored her movements and stopped her from visiting her family. O'Shea, from Halifax, in West Yorkshire, was also given a lifelong restraining order and told to stay away from areas of Halifax. In this case we can see some real recognition of the dangerous nature of coercive control and I hope that the woman will now find the freedom and space to build a new life.
The Crown Prosecution Service's own published information about cases to date shows that other men have received far less serious sentences for very worrying behaviour. Five cases are given as examples, and three of these men were not given immediate prison sentences.
On a more optimistic note, I think we can argues that this reform is important long before any criminal prosecution takes place, since it can be used to help those who are experiencing this kind of behaviour to see how problematic it is. Control on someone's access to others is often achieved by manipulative means: "They aren't nice to you, you're better off with me, because I love you." Or: "I need you, you know I've been through a hard time. If you stay with me, I will be ok, but I might not be, if you go out." So the manipulation might change somebody's behaviour long before there is any violence and it can be quite difficult to see, from inside a relationship. Discussion of the law reform may well help those experiencing some of this manipulation to recognise what is going on.
Finally, this new law is also important in sparking another public discussion about domestic abuse and about social change around abuse. The more information and discussion we all have, the greater the chance that we can begin to lessen the incidence of domestic abuse.