On the 1st April 2013 the Government amended the definition of domestic violence to include “coercive control”. This was an issue that I have spoken about previously on the BBC website in September – and is an initiative that I very much welcome.
Changing the definition of domestic violence however is useless without there being a corresponding change in the law. It sounds fantastic to say that domestic violence now includes coercive control but how on earth are abusers going to be prosecuted for it?
The only tools the police have to fight this type of behaviour are the laws against harassment and stalking. These laws are massively under-utilised as it is and require repeated patterns of behaviour. These laws were not devised to deal with coercive control within the setting of a couple living together and would be very difficult to use in many of the cases I deal with on a daily basis.
The Government has already committed itself to creating a criminal offence of forced marriage later this year so why not domestic abuse which is a far more common occurrence?
Coercive control can be just as terrifying as physical violence and there are very few cases of physical abuse where coercive control is not also present. Coercive control is often the precursor to physical abuse so surely it makes sense to have the means to bring a criminal prosecution before the abuse becomes physical? A woman is murdered by a current or former partner in the UK every 3 days so this is a huge problem we are dealing with.
Coercive control is often used to grind down the spirit and confidence of a victim until they are so submissive that they do not fight back or dare leave when the violence begins. I have many clients who will say that this cycle of coercive control followed by violence is a constant feature of their relationship and that the psychological terrorism is so terrifying that they are often relieved when the violence eventually comes. Worse still the cycle will usually begin again in an increasingly short space of time.
I have heard people object to a criminal offence of coercive control on the basis that they might find themselves “being arrested for arguing with my wife”.
Coercive control involves humiliation, degradation and intimidation which is not something that can happen – even during arguments – within a loving relationship.
I deal with women being subjected to the psychological terrorism of coercive control on a daily basis, let me give you an idea of what this is like. Alison was woken in the middle of the night by her partner Stephen, who had been out drinking, and ordered by him to go to the local garage to buy cigarettes for him. He gave her the money to pay for the cigarettes as she was not allowed to have her own money or bank account. She was told by him that as usual he would be timing her as he didn’t trust her not to have sex with other men ’on her way to the garage’. She knew that there would be violence if she was more than a second longer than the agreed time. When she returned he immediately demanded the change from her and the receipt. In the rush to get back within the time limit she forgot to pick up the receipt. Stephen began shouting sexual obscenities about her in her face with his forehead almost touching hers. He then ordered her to get down on her knees in front of him to beg for forgiveness which she did straight away knowing that it was the only way to try to avoid violence and in the terror of the ordeal wet herself in fear.
Most people would immediately agree that the above example is abhorrent and could not be confused for a “normal argument”. It would however be very difficult to fit this type of behaviour into the current range of criminal offences as the law stands and therefore the abuser would not be prosecuted.
A fair and humane society surely cannot tolerate this type of behaviour of itself and deserves to be punished in its own right but when you then consider that this type of behaviour often builds up to physical violence and sometimes murder it is imperative that action is taken to stamp this out before it escalates. I am confident that if this was to become the case dozens of women’s lives would be saved in the UK each year.