We are all accustomed to thinking of physical abuse when the term domestic violence is used. The stereotypical black eye comes to mind, but since 2015 the definition of domestic abuse has been expanded for the first time, criminalising non-physical abuse which so often occurs in the domestic setting. This criminal offence recognises psychological and emotional harm which can result from a pattern of behaviour and the need to consider and deal with controlling or coercive behaviour in domestic (family or close) relationships.
Obviously, although the definition has been expanded, the challenge is being able to provide evidence of the behaviour because, unlike a physical injury, it may not be obvious or noticeable to others. However, this does not make it any less harmful.
The offence is concerned with repeated behaviour that has a serious effect on one person, either by making that person fear that serious violence will be used against them or by causing that person serious alarm or distress, which has a substantive and adverse effect on their usual day-to-day activities. The event is therefore designed to include a range of behaviours which, when taken altogether, seriously affect the victim due to their controlling or coercive nature. It is often happening behind closed doors and is largely undetectable. I have often felt that some of my clients have been living with this type of behaviour for many years, without even realising it. They know that something is not right but it would not have occurred to them that what they are experiencing constitutes a criminal offence. Even if pointed out to them, they will often not wish to take the matter further, but simply try to get divorced as soon as possible and move on with their lives. This approach is understandable and in many cases sensible, but the victim needs to be attuned to the fact that harm would have been caused to them and they may require some professional help to assist them in recovering.
The guidance issued by the Home Office on this offence acknowledges that this is primarily “a form of violence against women and girls and is underpinned by wider societal gender inequality”. Generally, domestic abuse or coercive control can involve micro management of everyday activities quite often associated with women in their roles as home-makers, parents and partners. Examples of this behaviour can be controlling how the victim dresses, cleans, looks after the children and keeps the house. In order for this to actually constitute domestic abuse, the abuser’s demand must be linked with a believable threatened negative consequence if the victim doesn’t comply. Examples might be the infliction of physical violence or the withholding of finances or other resources. This means that the victim feels compelled to comply to avoid the negative consequences that are threatened. Sometimes the tactics of coercive behaviour are confused or misinterpreted as signs of affection or caring (think The Archers). So sometimes the isolation of the victim from friends and family and the policing of their behaviour and clothes can be seen as signs of love rather than jealousy. The context is very important.
The people involved in assessing, prosecuting and helping in these cases will need special training. They need to be able to understand both the behaviour of the perpetrator of the abuse and all about the harm that it inflicts upon the victim.
The first step has been taken, in recognising that this behaviour exists, and that it causes harm, and that something needs to be done about it. The next step will be to ensure that the proper training is in place and that these offences can be successfully prosecuted.
Louise Barretto is a Partner in our Family team.
If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this article, or concerning family relationship and divorce matters more widely, please contact Louise on 020 7091 2869 or another member of our expert family team by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.