THE BLOG

Re-Framing Domestic Violence Law Reform

29/09/2014 10:52 | Updated 26 November 2014

Emma Watson makes a compelling and inspiring speech about gender equality. The reaction of some is an attempt to silence and punish her for speaking out. More concerning is the reaction on social media by many who showed a total lack of empathy.

Janey Rice is seriously assaulted in a lift, and many respond with, 'but she did marry him' whilst Fox news presenters joke about taking the stairs and the NFL ban him from a few games. Last summer Caroline Criado Perez, a feminist and journalist, spearheaded an inspiring and successful campaign on social media to ensure a female through merit is on the bank notes. Within hours of her success, a tsunami of rape and death threats follow on Twitter. Following Isobel Sorley and John Simmo's recent conviction, Peter Nunn was found guilty on 2nd September, to be sentenced on Monday 29 September. This is just a handful of recent cases that show we still have a long way to go before gender equality is achieved and coercive control and the psychological impact of domestic abuse is understood.

That domestic violence is a gendered crime should not be controversial. It is in very recent history that women were viewed legally as the possessions of men - 100 years ago women were not allowed to vote, and rape in marriage was only criminalised in England in 1991. 89% of those who experience more than one incident of physical violence are female; women are more likely than men to experience multiple forms of abuse; more likely to experience sexual abuse; and three-and-a-half times more likely to be killed by a partner or ex-partner. One in three female suicide attempts is related to present or previous domestic violence. Women are significantly more likely to experience the pattern of controlling and coercive behaviour that the Home Office defines as domestic violence, and therefore much more likely to need specialist support services, especially refuge services.

Laws must reflect the reality of domestic violence and abuse in all its guises. Domestic violence is a pattern of behaviour - a course of conduct - much like stalking and yet police and prosecutors look for the single incident. It involves power and control and in many cases coercive control - yet the legislative framework misses the very essence of abuse and requires evidence to prove only physical assaults. This must change.

We welcome the consultation launched by the Home Secretary on August 20 2014, which is open for eight weeks and closes on 15th October. Now we must seize on this opportunity to strengthen our laws to better protect victims. To be clear our campaign with Women's Aid and Sara Charlton Charitable Foundation is not about criminalising emotional abuse - which is a misleading interpretation. This is about the pattern of abuse and coercive control, which has a serious psychological impact - and we must use the term 'coercive control', along with the course of conduct, is at the very heart of law reform.

Coercive control involves the deprivation of liberty and equality and behaviour may include:
• Unreasonable and non-negotiable demands
• Stalking - surveillance and unwanted contact
• Cruelty
• Destroying the partner's other relationships and isolating her/him from friends, family members, co-workers and others
• Restricting daily activities including bathroom use
• Coercion - a combination of demands, threats of negative consequences for noncompliance, and surveillance
• Manipulation through minimisation, denial, lies, promises, etc.
• Threats and intimidation
• Excuses, rationalisations and blame
• Stifling the partner's independence
• Controlling partner's access to information and services
• Sexual abuse and violence; reproductive coercion
• Economic control and exploitation

It's a repeated pattern of behaviour and 'historical abuse' is a norm in these cases and yet is not covered by any current legislation. Every other country (besides the US) has enhanced penalties at least for historical abuse and some, like Spain, the Netherlands and a few others, charge it as a specific crime.

By far the two biggest problems are firstly that current laws focus on incidents of violence. A man who is arrested 50 times is no more likely to be punished on his 50th than his first offence. And many risk assessments, if the professional is untrained, are incident specific. So the abuser who is high risk on Monday can be low risk two weeks later. Secondly, the police can't do anything about the range of coercively controlling behaviours they identify when they apply the Domestic Abuse Stalking and Harassment and Honour based Violence Risk Assessment and Management Model. Half the questions in the DASH ask about coercive control. Some of these behaviours are criminal offences, but are never charged when they occur in relationships.

The current law can criminalise a course of conduct and can move beyond physical injury - but it is selective. This needs to apply to violence in intimate relationships, as it does to stalking, given their fundamental similarity. Having campaigned for stalking law reform and as the specialist adviser to the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry I helped write the stalking legislation which criminalise a course of conduct, target patterns and address a broad range of harm. In these important respects, stalking legislation is useful when considering modernising domestic violence legislation.

It is important to highlight that stalking and harassment laws cannot be used for ongoing relationships, as stated in case law, as it is dependent on a course of conduct not being interspersed with affectionate life. And this happens in many cases due to the very nature of coercive control. The law needs to be modernised and if we are to challenge the behaviour of perpetrators appropriately.

The new law of coercive control, with clear and practical points to prove just like the stalking offences, would give police the tools to arrest and prosecutors to charge offenders for acts they are already identifying through the DASH Risk Assessment Model but can do nothing about and would allow them to charge historical abuse, thereby recognising that the harms to women and children in these cases are cumulative. Police have become increasingly frustrated with this situation and there is backlash, as there should be, against identifying coercively controlling behaviour and being hamstrung to act, visiting the same addresses repeatedly and waiting until it escalates to a physical assault before an arrest can be made.

Changing the law cannot be a substitute for improving the police response. However, legislative change signals training and awareness and can drive culture change to better protect women and children, hold perpetrators to account and effectively lead to a reduction in murder. And police, prosecutors and courts must have the best possible tools to do their job and keep victims and their children safe.

Associated links:
Paladin National Stalking Advocacy Service
Domestic Violence Law Reform Campaign
Domestic Violence Law Reform Consultation