The consultation has just closed on whether the law should be strengthened on domestic abuse. I firmly believe it should. Over the years working with victims too often I have heard that the psychological abuse and control they suffer at the hands of their partner is "the worst part" and yet the current legislative framework fails to recognise this.
The law needs to be modernised and if we are to challenge the behaviour of perpetrators appropriately, we need an offence that reflects the reality of domestic abuse in all its guises. By criminalising this form of abuse and having specialist legislation, similar to the stalking law introduced in 2012, it would send a message that abusive and coercively controlling behaviour within a relationship is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.
Domestic violence currently costs the government over £16billion per year. The absence of an adequate statutory framework contributes greatly to this sum as attitudes are unchanging, perpetrators are not deterred by the law, and victims experience abuse for longer and multiple victims result.
Paladin, Women's Aid and the Sara Charlton Charitable Foundation have been campaigning for this criminalisation gap to be closed. We feel that the laws used to prosecute domestic violence - including assault, burglary, property, breach of a restraining order, rape, kidnapping and murder - do not describe its essence. Patterns of power and control are missed. It misses the fact that domestic violence is about fear, coercive control and continuing acts. The totality of the behaviour and the non-physical manifestations of power and control that define an abusive relationship do real harm to victims, which are not recognised in criminal law.
Interestingly, it is only after separation that very same behaviour which was exerted in the relationship, control, is then criminalised: we call it stalking. Therefore the moment of 'break-up' becomes legally meaningful and separation can be the most dangerous time for women.
Reviewing the Evidence
On average, two women are murdered each week in England and Wales by their current or former partner. I have sadly reviewed many of those cases.
I developed the process of Domestic Homicide Review in 2001 when I was working at New Scotland Yard. I wondered why we reviewed a child's death to ensure we learned the lessons, but not the adult in a domestic violence context, particularly, if they were murdered in the same incident. I felt this was a key gap and when I presented to the then Solicitor General Harriet Harman, much to my surprise, she agreed. I worked with the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill team in 2003/2004 to create a legislative duty to review domestic murders. And in 2004 law was changed, with statutory guidance being published in 2011. Since then the murders of Maria Stubbings, Jeanette Goodwin, Christine and Shania Chamber, Julia and Will Pemberton, Jane Clough, Natalie Esack, Rachael Slack, Caroline Parry, Kirsty Treloar and Hollie Gazzard are amongst the long list of victims who were coercively controlled and murdered by their abusers. In my role as a domestic homicide reader for the Home Office the lack of identification and understanding regarding coercive control is a persistent finding. This must change if we really are to save lives.
For too long the Crown Prosecution Service has only prosecuted for a single incident, focusing on the injury level, whilst failing to take into account a course of conduct, the pattern of coercive controlling behaviour and fear as a measure of harm. As a direct result, the seriousness of the pattern of abuse is not identified or understood, women become entrapped, abuse and rape become normalised and no-one goes to prison without injuries being present.
The current law can criminalise a course of conduct and can move beyond physical injury - but it is selective. This needs to apply to abuse in intimate relationships, as it does to stalking, given their fundamental similarity. Stalking laws 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 the current law. However, we know 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 affection. And this happens in many cases due to the very nature of coercive control.
The 'Victim's Voice' Survey published by Paladin, Women's Aid and Sara Charlton Charitable Foundation showed that 98% of victims (n= 254) were subjected to controlling, domineering and/or demeaning behaviours in their relationship. Behaviours included:
• isolation from friends, family and colleagues;
• excessive jealously;
• removal of all communications devices;
• food and use of the toilet being withheld;
• control of what the victim would wear;
• how they would style their hair and where they could work, if they were allowed to at all;
• stalking by means of tracking and following;
• financial control including restricting the victim from using any money or having any control over bills;
• deliberate sleep deprivation;
• threats of sexual abuse or rape;
• threats to harm or kill children and/or pets;
• threats of physical harm such as broken bones or strangulation.
Overwhelmingly, 98% (n=254) stated that law reform is needed.
Timing could not be better given that police forces have just published their action plans in response to the HMIC report. The need for specialist-led training, risk assessment and proactive risk management and culture change feature heavily and lay the foundations for new legislation. The timing could not be any better legislatively to introduce new legislation through the Serious Crime Bill before the general election. We have campaigned and lobbied hard, as well as produced overwhelming and compelling evidence for legislative change. Timing is everything - and the time is now.