A much anticipated addition to the domestic violence legislations has come into force.
The new law, brought into force in England and Wales, follows a Home Office consultation in which 85% of participants said the existing law did not provide sufficient protection.
This new addition provides for criminal sanctions for coercive control which stop short of actual physical violence. It comes as Citizens Advice published figures showing a 24% rise in those seeking advice for domestic abuse.
It is well known that domestic abuse is not limited to physical attacks. It can include a slow corrosive taking of control of the other party’s finances, relationships with friends and family and a lowering of self esteem to the point of which it is almost impossible to end the relationship.
It is right that controlling behaviour is recognised for what it is, but obtaining a conviction is very much going to depend upon the depth and quality of the evidence available. Police Officers may well be used to dealing with cuts and bruises which are an easy form of tangible evidence, but they will have to obtain details regarding a whole pattern of the relationship, such evidence of course has to stand up to scrutiny in a Criminal Court.
It may be a little easier if there is proof, for example, that the other party is spying upon the person online or using certain apps or devices that make it possible to carry out a clandestine monitoring of a person’s online activity or phone usage.
However, only within the last month the BBC published a story that the Police in England and Wales were on the verge of being “overwhelmed” by massive increases in reports of domestic abuse. We were told that this had led to excessive workloads and had affected the quality and speed of investigations in some forces.
This does not bode well if the Police are now in addition going to be required to carry out very careful and detailed investigations in order to seek to prove a pattern of coercive control.
This type of abusive behaviour of course also needs to be recognised in areas where there is no criminal offence, especially in the context of family proceedings. A person who has exercised control over their partner is often very adept at presenting a very acceptable face to the public and to the professionals with whom they come into contact in the course of Court proceedings. Proving the reality of a difficult relationship is a challenging task and this has implications for the future arrangements of a child.
How this new law will work in practice of course remains to be seen.
One might expect some initial enthusiasm on the part of some Police officers to show that they are “on message” but the evidential difficulties in seeking to prove an abusive relationship which does not involve easily ascertained physical injuries will be very considerable indeed.
Relationships vary massively and what might be an acceptable way of talking to someone within one relationship would not be for others.
There are also people who are perfectly happy for one party to deal with all financial issues and to operate all the relevant bank accounts. There are also people who share email addresses. Not everyone would be happy about that and there is a danger of a dissatisfied ex-partner seeking retrospectively to present this as an abusive relationship.
There is the risk of the legislation being used as a weapon for pushing someone into a corner and labelling them as an ‘abuser’ even if the relationship itself was not perceived to be an abusive one at the time, if there is to be a present advantage gained.
It will be remembered that convictions under the new law will be domestic abuse convictions which can put the complainant in a position to apply for legal aid for family proceedings.