International Women’s Day (IWD) is a global day for celebrating the achievements of women and raising awareness about women’s equality. In the UK you don’t have to look far to identify the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. We are very lucky in this country that women are represented in all walks of life, and many opportunities exist for women. However, this is not to say that the representation or the opportunities are equal to those of men. You only need to consider that women make up a slightly larger percentage of the UK population, according to the 2011 census, and reflect upon the numbers of women in prominent roles to see how unequal the situation is. There is simply not a level playing field.
This means that we live in a society where the majority are dominated by the minority and this dominance is reflected not just in the sphere of work and politics, but also in the everyday engagement of women with men. The very darkest results of this are seen in violent crimes perpetuated against women, such as domestic homicide, sexual violence and rape, coercive control, stalking and harassment. Such crimes are, according to a joint letter by the victims’ and domestic abuse commissioners delivered on IWD 2021, exacerbated by a “culture of misogyny”, which runs through the criminal justice system “to the detriment of women across England and Wales”, prompting calls for an overhaul. That a culture of misogyny exists in which such crimes can take place has been the subject of countless commentaries and is demonstrated by proposals, put forward by the Law Commission, that misogyny should be made a hate crime in order to properly protect women.
Sadly, the impact of such misogyny and the ingrained cultural norms that give rise to that misogyny, is not limited to criminal offences, but also results in abuses of women’s civil rights and autonomy. It is a pattern I see repeatedly in my work, where women seek my advice because their rights are being infringed, and the situation they find themselves in has become so unbearable and entrenched that they need the help of a third party to reassert their rights on their behalf. The situations I see usually involve older women whose lives, and often the lives of the men whose actions they are complaining of, have been less affected than the younger generations by the changing views on gender equality that we have thankfully seen over the last 50 years. The women who seek my help have often spent their informative years being told not to make a fuss, to “be polite”, and that being “ladylike” is more important than being assertive. Men of the same age, on the other hand, were dissuaded from vulnerability, encouraged to “take it on the chin” and “keep a stiff upper lip”, and told that women needed looking after. It’s hardly surprising that “dominant” men affected by these stereotypical categorisations can easily become “domineering”, moving from looking after others, to taking over others.
Unfortunately, as the perceived power of the stereotype of the domineering man can be appealing to them, plenty of younger men still cling to the outdated notions of their fathers and grandfathers that produce the stereotype, meaning that the controlling behaviour complained of is not limited to just older men. This means that for many of my female clients, the domineering man can come in the form not only of husbands and brothers, but also sons, or even non-family members, including tradespeople, many of whom have intended, within their narrow world-view, to “help” my client, by subjecting her to what they think is the best solution and without asking her view or obtaining her authority to act. The consequences of such actions are virtually indistinguishable from those involving straightforward coercion.
The cases in which I see these circumstances are varied, ranging from contractual and property disputes, where there may have been some form of undue influence, to cases arising within the context of the administration of estates, where the loss of one family member radically shifts the family dynamic, to the more pernicious cases of stalking and harassment, or the improper use of authority intended to protect a vulnerable person, such as a Lasting Power of Attorney. Of course, such claims are not brought exclusively by women, and there are many men also who are at risk of being taken advantage of by unscrupulous people, including women. What is, however, a pattern in my work, is that society’s increasingly outdated perception that women need the protection of men, seems to lead to men taking advantage, albeit perhaps unintentionally, of women.
Thankfully, there is much that can be done to protect vulnerable parties, including some women, within the civil courts, with remedies ranging from actions for unfair contract terms, to undue influence and protection from harassment injunctions, reinforced by Human Rights legislation. Where there is discrimination, the Equality Act 2010 comes into play, and for issues of capacity, the Court of Protection can be involved. However, often the courts are not needed to protect women from controlling or domineering behaviour, and robust action taken directly to highlight the behaviour complained of can be sufficient. Sometimes, particularly where any coercion or controlling behaviour is continuing, it can help to remind both the client and the other party of the rights of the client to her own autonomy. In such situations it is often possible to find a solution by way of mediation or another form of alternative dispute resolution, and to support a client to be able to assert themselves or, if not, to assert their position on their behalf.
If you feel that you have been subjected to controlling or domineering behaviour, and would like to know how we can help, please contact Rachel who is a Senior Associate in our Litigation & Dispute Resolution teams on 020 7091 2706 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The content of this note should not be considered legal advice and each matter should be considered on a case by case basis.