Our criminal justice system is currently failing victims of domestic violence. There are substantial gaps in the law that allow abusers to evade justice and enforce the view that unless there are bruises, the perpetrator hasn't done anything wrong.
The patterns of abuse which include psychological abuse and coercive control (behaviour designed to intimidate and have power over a victim) are the essence of domestic violence and yet the alarmingly, current legislation only prohibits single incidents of physical violence. The government and their agencies have pledged to do more, but without reflecting the true nature of the crime in legislation, they are making a fatal mistake. In order to save countless lives, these gaps need to be filled.
Sara Charlton Foundation, in partnership with Women's Aid and Paladin, are campaigning to reform domestic violence law. Unless psychological abuse, coercive control and the pattern that it lies within are all criminalised, the legislative system cannot offer the protection to victims that it should, leaving them and their children to suffer at the hands of their abusers.
Every week, 2 women are killed by a partner or ex-partner, but despite many positive attempts by the current government to deal with this crime, these figures remain unchanged. Domestic violence may be a crime that mostly happens behind closed doors, but it still costs the taxpayers £20 billion a year. Perpetrators of domestic violence do not just physically hurt their victim once; it is a pattern of abuse designed to exert power over their victim in order to control them. In fact, most perpetrators will only use violence when psychological abuse and coercive control stops being enough, and that violence can quickly escalate to murder. However, currently the law will usually only get involved if there is an incident of physical abuse, and even if they do, each incident is evaluated alone, meaning that the pattern of abuse is missed. Many organisations, and indeed the Home Office, recognise that the cause of domestic violence lies within this pattern, but currently all the criminal justice system is doing is dealing with its symptoms whilst the taxpayers are footing the bill.
The scars left by psychological abuse and coercive control may not be seen to the naked eye, but they last far longer than the bruises, with many victims not recognising it as part of the abuse. In fact, in our survey, 75.6% of victims of psychological abuse didn't think a crime had been committed so they didn't report their abuse to the police. Astonishingly, they were not too far from the truth. Whilst assault can be psychological, unless it results in a psychiatric harm, it is not a crime. This threshold excludes the majority of psychological injuries that a victim can experience. Criminalising these behaviours will give the police and other agencies the tools to effectively intervene before it is too late, will raise real awareness of the dangers of this crime to the general public and help victims to recognise that what they are enduring should not be tolerated.
It can be done. The amendments to The Protection from Harassment Act (1997) criminalised stalking as a course of conduct that includes violence and causing serious alarm and distress, but it only applies to those who are no longer in a relationship. The law now needs to recognise that this behaviour is harmful whether you are still in the relationship or not.
The HMIC report into the police response to domestic violence revealed that some police forces don't treat domestic violence seriously and many police officers have little understanding of coercive control. As a result, Theresa May has renewed her commitment to victims that they will get the support that they so desperately need. Additionally, last week David Cameron pledged to look into the laws relating to domestic violence and Yvette Cooper acknowledged that our legal system must reflect the horror that victims face. We hope that they do, the victims of domestic violence and their children need them to follow through.
Perpetrators of domestic violence need to be held accountable for the totality of their abusive actions, not just the ones that can currently be prosecuted. It is not the victim's fault, it is the abuser, and we need to reflect the reality of that abuse in our laws. It can be done, but only when it is will we be able to protect victims the way in which they should be protected.