Following their consultation ‘strengthening the law on domestic abuse’, the government plans to introduce a law on domestic abuse which criminalises ‘coercive control.’
The legislation will make controlling and coercive behaviour between those in an intimate relationship a criminal offence. Introducing such legislation is not sufficient to combat the issue of domestic abuse unless it is supported by an improvement in the responses of criminal justice agencies to abuse, and increased investment in support services for victims.
Currently, domestic abuse is not criminalised as a specific offence, however victims of physical violence are offered protection under existing criminal offences. Protection is also offered under civil law in the form of non-molestation and occupation orders. The police have been given additional powers through the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (Clare’s Law), to disclose information on request about whether an individual’s partner has a history of perpetrating domestic violence. The police can also issue Domestic Violence Protection Notices, placing restrictions on the perpetrator contacting the victim and providing immediate emergency protection to victims.
Creating an offence of coercive control will bring the law in line with the government’s existing non-statutory definition of domestic abuse. In creating this offence the government hopes that it will ‘[h]elp victims identify the behaviour they are suffering as wrong and encourage them to report it, and cause perpetrators to rethink their controlling behaviour. The government acknowledges that currently the police response to non-violent domestic abuse is largely inadequate, and by explicitly acknowledging coercive and controlling behaviour as an offence anticipates that this form of abuse will be taken more seriously.
Any steps taken to address the issue of domestic abuse are commendable, but simply criminalising coercive control is not a sufficient response. As discussed above, there are already numerous laws used to protect victims of domestic abuse. However, evidence suggests that these existing legal provisions are not being used effectively enough, and therefore, if a new offence of coercive control is introduced, will it suffer the same ineffective fate of its predecessors?
The government hopes that by creating an offence of coercive control, reporting rates of domestic abuse will increase. Statistics from the United States, where similar laws have been introduced in some states, indicate a 50% increase in reporting rates. In order for victims to feel able to report their abuse, they need confidence in the responses of criminal justice agencies. A recent report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabularies (HMIC) highlighted a number of significant failings in police responses to victims of domestic abuse. The report indicated that victims who reported their abuse to the police sometimes felt they were not believed, that specialist domestic violence units in police forces are often under-resourced and overwhelmed, and that there are unacceptable variations when charging perpetrators with offences (https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmic/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/improving-the-police-response-to-domestic-abuse.pdf). It is clear that urgent improvements are needed in the police response to domestic abuse to secure more prosecutions under existing legislation and to increase confidence in the criminal justice process.
Within the justice system there needs to be an eradication of the damaging stereotypes which continue to surround victims of domestic abuse. Victims are stereotyped as being female, abused in the context of a heterosexual relationship, with the abuser being their male partner or ex-partner. Although this is the context within which the majority of domestic abuse takes place, a significant minority of cases involve male victims abused by their female partner, or domestic abuse taking place in same-sex relationships. Domestic abuse within these contexts is often overlooked, thus discouraging these victims from coming forward for fear that they will not be believed. Indeed, research conducted by the charity ManKind has highlighted that ‘male victims (29%) are nearly twice as likely than women (17%) to not tell anyone about the partner abuse’. There is also a continuing issue within the justice system of stereotypes of abuse victims more generally. Victims of domestic abuse who fail conform to particular stereotypes that dictate that they should be meek and passive in the face of the abuse have their status as victims regularly called into question.
Alongside creating an offence of coercive control, more investment also needs to be made in the services that provide support to victims of domestic abuse. Currently only victims who are at the highest risk of serious harm from their partners or ex-partners can access support from Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (IDVAs). Their invaluable support can include creating safety plans for the victim to leave their abusive partner and supporting the victim in giving evidence in court. The number of IDVAs has decreased as a result of funding cuts and they are not available to those who are assessed as being at low to medium risk of serious harm. Domestic violence charities and organisations, who are often funded by local government, have seen significant reductions in funding. Since 2010, one in six specialist refuges has been lost due to funding cuts and 48% of the 167 domestic violence services in England are running their services without government funding. In response to a campaign by Women’s Aid, the Government has committed £10 million to prevent the closure of specialist refuges. However, there are still concerns that this is insufficient to offer the degree of support needed for victims.
With 1.1 million women and 720,000 men reporting domestic violence in the past year, domestic abuse is a significant societal issue. Simply creating new legislation will not combat this problem. Alongside creating an offence of coercive control, more work needs to be done in improving justice agency’s responses to domestic abuse, supported by investment in the support services so valuable to victims of abuse. As one victim of domestic abuse stated on BBC Panorama’s Domestic Abuse: Caught on Camera; ‘domestic abuse is everyone’s problem’ – it’s about time that this was truly reflected in the governmental and justice system’s responses to this form of abuse.
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Siobhan Weare teaches on our undergraduate degree schemes in Law and Criminology.
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