A debate has opened up on whether the law around domestic violence needs to be strengthened. Specifically, the Home Office is considering proposals to criminalise 'coercive control' - which is defined by the government as "an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim".
I am pleased this debate is bringing public attention to the controlling behaviours used by abusers. Violence against women is an abhorrent crime, whatever form it takes. But I do not believe that criminalising coercive control is either a sufficient or workable solution.
First, I believe there is a more pressing problem - and that problem lies with the very definition of domestic violence. The government describes domestic violence as any incident or pattern of abuse "between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality." There are two problems with this definition: it is too broad and it is gender-neutral. Domestic violence has become a 'catch all' term used to describe any form of abuse occurring between people who in some way share a 'domestic' or 'intimate' link. The traditional interpretation of domestic violence - i.e. that it is male violence against women - has been completely lost.
Second, I believe that greater effort must be made to implement existing laws. All too often, police officers and other criminal justice professionals fail to protect women, even when serious physical harm has been committed. I recently attended the inquest into the death of Maria Stubbings - a woman who was brutally murdered by a man who was already known to the police for killing a previous girlfriend. The inquest found that Essex Police made a shocking catalogue of failings that contributed to Maria's death - some in the most basic of policing duties.
What is the point of creating new laws when the ones we already have are not being used effectively? A law is only as good as its implementation. It is already possible to prosecute non-physical forms of abuse - including psychiatric injury, threats, stalking and harassment. We need to get the basics right first.
Third, introducing a 'coercive control' offence could lead to it being treated as a separate, less serious category of crime. Many police officers already fail to respond to violence against women with the seriousness it deserves - this year's inspection by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary into policing on domestic violence made this abundantly clear, finding: "Tackling domestic abuse too often remains a poor relation to acquisitive crime and serious organised crime". Those negative attitudes which underpin the well-worn phrase 'It's just a domestic' are unlikely to be suddenly shifted by a new law criminalising coercive control. In fact, officers could respond to allegations of non-physical abuse even more dismissively, thinking, 'It's just coercive control - not 'real' domestic violence'. Serious physical offences could be downgraded and perpetrators under-charged.
Fourth, there will be huge problems with implementing a coercive control offence. Controlling behaviour often takes place in private, domestic settings without the benefit of third party corroboration. It can be incredibly subtle, perpetrated through manipulative attempts to limit a woman's freedom in ways even she does not recognise. Providing evidence of such behaviours to satisfy criminal standards will be difficult. This means that only the most extreme examples will reach court. For those women whose cases fail, the sense of 'I must have been exaggerating' will be hard to ignore.
In summary, I agree that the law needs to be strengthened - but not by criminalising coercive control. Instead, the government needs to abandon its gender-neutral approach to tackling domestic violence and start addressing violence against women for what it truly is - a deeply gendered crime. This would require gender specific legislation - legislation which acknowledges that male violence against a female victim is different in scale, form and impact from female violence against a male.
As part of this gender specific legislation, the government should include a new offence criminalising cumulative harm within the context of woman abuse. This would reflect the fact that abused women usually experience repeated violence over a prolonged period of time. At present, charges can only be brought for single incidents. This means that for many women, the serious harm caused by years of chronic abuse is ignored. A new offence criminalising cumulative harm within the context of woman abuse would remedy this situation. Any charge for this new offence would be made in addition to individual charges brought for crimes of violence towards a victim - to reflect the cumulative harm she has suffered. The Swedish offence, 'Gross Violation of a Woman's Integrity', operates on a similar basis.
Legislative reform is complex, and must address the needs of victims if it is to be truly effective. I hope the government considers these issues carefully.