I have always been passionate about women’s rights and I am proud to call myself a feminist. However, I never dreamed when I was writing my dissertation on domestic violence that I would be able to find a job that allowed me to pursue these passions and get paid for it!
I am a solicitor and have specialised in domestic abuse and stalking for the entirety of my career. I work mainly in the area of family law, as well as with cases in the civil arena where victims have been failed by the police or prison service.
Many survivors of domestic abuse face enormous difficulties in the family courts, as domestic abuse is still not understood. Though there are pockets of good practice, there is an entrenched culture of victim blaming, particularly in cases of coercive control and stalking where there may be minimal physical violence.
In 2014, I became the Chair of Paladin (the National Stalking Advocacy Service) where I got involved in the campaign to make coercive control a criminal offence. It was apparent that women who had experienced horrendous acts of psychological violence were being let down by the lack of legislation, which made it impossible for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to bring prosecutions.
"In my view, coercive control is the essence of domestic abuse and a large part of why perpetrators can get away with torturing women for so long."
The existing law – which only dealt with physical abuse – revealed a massive gap in protecting women. In my view, coercive control is the essence of domestic abuse and a large part of why perpetrators can get away with torturing women for so long. The fact that the government changed their definition of domestic abuse in 2012 to include coercive and controlling behaviour, made the argument for a change in the law compelling.
One of the cases that motivated me to speak out was my client, who was forced to eat all her meals from a dog bowl on the floor. When she went to the police, she was told that there was nothing that they could do and to “come back when he hits you”.
"I accept cuts have made it more difficult for the police to properly deal with their workloads, but there is undoubtedly a huge issue with institutionalised misogyny within the force."
I was pleased to see coercive control become a criminal offence at the end of 2015, but I am very disappointed that so few perpetrators are being charged. There is clearly still a lot of work to be done in training the police and CPS, so that women who have experienced abuse are not put in a position where they are forced to “prove” their case. If the police and CPS are serious about saving women’s lives then this issue needs to be tackled urgently. I accept cuts have made it more difficult for the police to properly deal with their workloads, but there is undoubtedly a huge issue with institutionalised misogyny within the force. If you look at other crimes which are similarly dealt with in an appalling manner by the police such as rape, sexual assault, child abuse and stalking, these are also crimes which predominantly affect women as victims of crime perpetrated by men.
Recently, I represented Paladin in applying to intervene in the legal challenge to the prorogation of Parliament, on the basis that the government had said that there were only “small, low priority bills” going through parliament at the time. This description shows the reality of how domestic abuse is considered by the government, “low priority”, even though more than two women a week are being killed by their male partners or ex-partners. The recent announcement of a general election means that the domestic abuse bill has once again fallen. I can only hope that the next government will make it a genuine priority, going further than the last bill to really bring about radical change. Real consequences for the police and CPS for failures need to be introduced along the lines of corporate manslaughter charges in the worst cases. A register for serial perpetrators of domestic abuse and stalking is also needed.
In my experience agencies including the government, police, prison service, CPS and judiciary do not change in their treatment of women unless they are forced to.
Sadly, many survivors cannot afford legal representation so I have recently published a book about coercive control which I hope will assist survivors to navigate their way through the family court arena and how to use the system to obtain the best results.
Find out more about the book and buy a copy here.
Rachel is an award winning solicitor and the head of a nationally renowned department specialising in coercive control and stalking in family and civil cases at Watson Ramsbottom Ltd. She is also the Chair of Paladin the National Stalking Advocacy Service, media commentator and a committed feminist. Rachel was also nominated for the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize.
Article originally published on the Centre for Women’s Justice Blog