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You may not have heard, but in December, a ground breaking new law came into force making the act of coercive control, which is at the centre of most domestic abuse, an offence.
This is a cause for celebration for many practitioners working with survivors of abuse, and finally an acknowledgement that domestic violence as a term, does not encompass all that is included within the act of domestic abuse. . Dr Jane Monckton-Smith Lecturer of Criminology at Gloucester and creator of DART, says that coercive control predicts the likelihood of homicide nine times more than violence.
It is hoped that this law will start the sea-change in culture needed to acknowledge that domestic abuse is not simply about violence, and therefore should not be labelled as such. Moreover, to end the ignorant 'why doesn't she just leave him' attitude. Dr Emma Katz, researcher and lecturer at Liverpool Hope University said at an Action against Violence and Abuse (AVA) seminar in London last week:
"There is often too much focus on the physical side when most victims state the emotional is much harder to cope with. This is why it is so important we call it domestic abuse."
Although this is great news and undoubtedly a step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go. One look at Binderman's Chart of Coercion demonstrates the complexity of coercive control, which resultantly will make it a very difficult offence to evidence and prosecute. This week is Sexual Abuse & Violence Awareness Week, and it is also LGBT History Month. Both of these events have intrinsic links with coercive control, as too often sexual abuse occurs within a controlling relationship, with research indicating that LGBT people are often silent sufferers of domestic abuse. There are still taboos around domestic abuse in these areas that need breaking down and more research to be done.
The AVA seminar aimed to help practitioners in the field understand the new law, which is a new defence and deterrent in the armoury against domestic abuse. At the seminar, Policy Officer at AVA Joanna Sharpen said that the perpetrator of coercive control works from a rulebook which is ever changing, and that the victim is constantly trying to adapt to the new laws laid down by the perpetrator. Ways of evidencing were discussed, including asking the victim (where appropriate) to keep a diary and also looking to evidence on the mobile phone such as chat and call histories, geotagging on images and social media posts. It was also said that those investigating the case should look at speaking to friends, family, and colleagues who may have noted behaviour changes. All that when put together can build a strong picture of what is going on and can form part of the evidence.
Coercive control is such a subjective, individualised thing and the response needs to reflect that. Jenny Hopkins, CPS Chief Crown Prosecutor Champion for VAWG commented that one partner taking control in certain situations is quite normal in relationships (such as where to go for dinner). It becomes abuse when the control element becomes a set of rules that are punishable when broken. Dr Jane Monckton-Smith suggests that there should be a threat assessment done with the perpetrator alongside the risk assessment of the victim. There could be high risk markers in this assessment, as well as a look at the abuser psychology and their triggers to allow services to be more proactively preventative.
There is no exhaustive list of behaviour captured within this new law. Perpetrators tailor their conduct to each victim. Something which may have little effect on one person may have a massive effect on another. There is a need to explain why things have an impact especially if the tactics are less self-explanatory for them to constitute good evidence.
The law has strict restrictions around the circumstances that are considered for prosecution such as the victim had to have been living with the perpetrator, even if no longer together, or part of the same family at the time of the incident. This excludes many victims, who according to Jenny Hopkins would then still be covered under stalking legislation. Incidents must also be repeated or continuous, not one off events, but there is no time restriction between incidents, which is a step forward from previous legislation. The full Home Office guidance on the new law can be found here. The first arrests were made in January, and professionals from all sectors will be watching these cases to see just how this law works in practice.
Action on DA is always going to be a murky subject to work with. But one thing that is clear, is that we all need to stop calling it Domestic Violence or DV, and call it the more inclusive Domestic Abuse or DA. This acknowledges there are multiple types of abuse involved, and that violence occurs more often than not alongside emotional abuse, which many victims say is the hardest part.
Recent changes in the law are extremely positive, but we also need to look at police procedure and attitude towards DA. Police questioning can no longer be simplistic, and must look to intentions, rather than a simple 'tell me what happened'. It also needs to be acknowledged that perpetrators of coercive control are highly manipulative, and so are more than likely going to attempt to manipulate all those involved in their prosecution. Professional knowledge and protocol as a whole needs to be updated, including paramedics, midwives, GPs and other individuals which may come into contact with a victim prior to them making that all important first call, to ensure victims needs are at the centre of the response.
It is just a shame that with this new law, the government did not provide new pots of funding to increase the knowledge base on the subject, and how to use the new powers.