Today the Government announced that the law criminalising coercive control and psychological abuse is going to be enforced by the 29th December 2015. Those who are found guilty under the Serious Crime Act 2015 will be liable to a maximum of 5 years in prison, a fine or both. As part of the Domestic Violence Law Reform Campaign we are very pleased to hear this news, but what does the law really mean? And what will the law actually do?
Why do we need it?
Up until now there were gaps in the law that allowed perpetrators of domestic violence to psychologically abuse their victims without criminal consequences. Emotional abuse and coercive control within a relationship, the heart of domestic violence, was not a crime. This permitted perpetrators to continue to abuse and left victims without the sufficient criminal justice safeguards to protect them. Now this gap in the law is filled, we can intervene earlier and hopefully save lives.
What does the law do?
The new law criminalises perpetrators who coerce, control and psychologically abuse their victims. In order for the offence to apply, the behaviour would have to pass two main tests.
Firstly, the perpetrator should know that their actions would lead to another person being controlled. What this means is that if a reasonable person, with all the information available to them, would conclude that the perpetrators actions amount to psychological abuse and coercive control, then the perpetrator should know that their actions would have this effect as well.
Secondly, as a result of the perpetrators actions, there has to be a serious negative influence on the victim's daily life and as a consequence of the perpetrators actions, they suffer alarm, distress or fear for their life.
When does it apply?
The new law applies to behaviours in three environments: an intimate relationship, former partners who still live together and family members. This does not mean that the partners still have to be together in order for it to go to court, it just means that the actions themselves have to have occurred when the victim and perpetrator were personally connected. A controlling incident would have to occur more than once, though a time frame between incidents is not specified in the law.
However, this law is not retroactive. It will only apply to cases that occur after the day it is enforced, previous incidents can be used to build a case, but past abusive relationships do not fall under the Act.
What if the victim and perpetrator were not personally connected at the time of the incidents?
If the victim and the perpetrator were not in an intimate relationship, cohabiting or family members at the time of the incidents then the Stalking and Harassment laws will apply instead.
What it make a difference?
We believe that the change in law will lead to agencies being able to intervene before the violence escalates and will reinforce the view that bruises do not have to be present for an abusive relationship to exist. It is vital that this new law is coupled with good training and increased awareness and understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse. If so, it will make a real difference to those victims and their children who live in fear.