A new domestic violence law comes into effect on 29 December, which recognises for the first time that abuse is a complex and sustained pattern of behaviour intended to create fear. The coercive control offence, which carries a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment and a fine, can be invoked if a victim suffers serious alarm or distress that impacts on their day-to-day activities, or if they fear violence will be used on at least two occasions.
The law change comes in the same month as a report by the police inspectorate which found that the number of reported crimes associated with domestic abuse increased by 31% in 18 months. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) warned that specialist crime units could be overwhelmed – and called for an end to the postcode lottery where protection and support for victims vary widely across the country. It also noted inconsistent levels of awareness concerning coercive or controlling behaviour.
It’s only right that HMIC is pushing the police to improve, and that criminal procedures are strengthened. But there is no equivalent action in the civil court system. The family court system – which deals with matters of finance, child access and residence in cases where partners have been domestically abused – needs to ensure a rigorous and consistent approach. And at present the family court experience can prove devastating for vulnerable women and children.
Government guidance concerning the new domestic violence offense says: “Perpetrators can be particularly adept at manipulating professionals, agencies and systems, and may use a range of tactics in relation to this offense.” So where is the push for courts to train legal professionals to help them spot the psychological games and deceptions practised by abusive men? And where are the checks and balances to ensure that rulings reflect an understanding that domestic violence is a sustained pattern of behaviour which has far-reaching consequences?