New domestic abuse laws will give prosecutors the tools they need to tackle the “very real” psychological harm caused by perpetrators’ undermining and controlling behaviour, according to Scotland’s top law officer.
Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC said the legislation will allow the Crown to prosecute “insidious abusive behaviours” not previously covered by the criminal law.
He said the legislation marks another step forward in changing how Scotland understands and deals with abuses carried out within the home.
“Victims of domestic abuse should be in no doubt that where criminal conduct is perpetrated against them and they come forward and report it, they will be taken seriously and they will be treated with respect,” he said.
The Domestic Abuse Bill, which was passed at Holyrood on Thursday, creates a specific offence of domestic abuse that covers not just physical abuse but other forms of psychological harm and coercive and controlling behaviour.
It covers the full breadth of violent, threatening, intimidating and other controlling behaviour which can destroy a victim’s autonomy and further recognises the adverse impact domestic abuse can have on children.
Mr Wolffe said: “The Domestic Abuse Bill will make criminal insidious abusive behaviours, intended to isolate, humiliate, degrade, subjugate, punish or control, that at present we are unable to prosecute.
“For the first time, it will allow us not only to lay the whole story before the court, but to mark that whole story for what it is – a course of criminally abusive conduct deserving of prosecution in the public interest.”
Speaking during a visit to Edinburgh Women’s Aid (EWA), Mr Wolffe said coercive behaviour can blight the lives of those who suffer it.
He told Press Association Scotland: “In the experience of prosecutors who deal with domestic abuse, what we see is the damage that the kind of systematic, undermining, controlling behaviour can do to victims.
“The damage may not be physical but psychological harm is very real and at present the criminal law doesn’t address that.”
The Lord Advocate said the ability to put the “full lived experience of the victim” before the courts is at the heart of the changes to tackle what has so far been a “significantly under-reported problem”.
“We’ve gone from a time which some of us can still recall when the criminal justice system regarded what went on in people’s homes as a private matter which was not for the law to interfere with,” said Mr Wolffe.
“We now recognise that domestic abuse … causes real harm to victims and where criminal behaviour is perpetrated within the home, it is absolutely right that the criminal justice system steps in.”
The top prosecutor said he would measure the success of the changes in the confidence of victims to come forward and report cases, and “in a culture change in which the kind of behaviour that we’re dealing with here is recognised to be not simply unacceptable but unlawful”.
He added: “I think there’s a sense of excitement across the system that this really does allow the system to respond in a more effective way to the kinds of circumstances that they see every day in their working lives.”
EWA chief executive Linda Rodgers said: “EWA welcomes the new legislation and are hopeful that once enacted that this will lead to more positive court outcomes for the women we support.
“This will mean that the law will now recognise what our clients tell us on a daily basis about their experiences which is that abuse is about more than physical or aggressive behaviour.”