29th December 2015
From 29 December, 'controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship' will become illegal. It does not need to be physically violent; it does not even need to be physically threatening, but it is abuse. From now, you can be tried in a criminal court and face up to five years in prison if found guilty of it.
When I talk to people about this new legislation, I get a mixed reaction. How can we legislate for something that is so 'personal'? How will we manage given that the police and courts are struggling to deal with domestic abuse already? As one person put it - "we still can't deal with black eyes and broken bones properly - what difference will this make"?
I do understand the scepticism. Despite the rise in identified cases reported on by HMIC two weeks ago, domestic abuse continues to be under-reported, poorly understood and hidden. How is more legislation going to change that?
The law is a reflection of a society's morals, our sense of right and wrong; our right to be able to live a life free from fear of another. Make no mistake, being in a controlling and coercive relationship snatches this right away. It is terrifying; its impact on the victim and their children is both profound and long-term.
We work with friends and families of victims who have been murdered. They are not survivors - it is too late for them. Abuse can happen to anyone and these courageous friends and relations are from all walks of their life; each story is unique and heart-breaking. When you talk to them, the common thread is the immense control the perpetrator exerted over the victim. Their stories ended in the most unimaginable horror. These relationships began with the victim becoming isolated, checked up on, chased, manipulated, humiliated, followed, harassed, stalked - controlled and coerced.
If you have an abusive partner or family member, simply living your life is a problem. Trying to make everyday decisions independently becomes an excuse for further abuse. Perpetrators want control over their victim and when they feel their grip loosen, their behaviour often gets worse. We see time and time again, whether it be financial, emotional, physical or sexual abuse - control is at the centre. That is why we recognise the value of this legislation. It illustrates the serious nature of control and coercion and empowers the police to act on it, early.
So often, victims only get proper help when it's too late. We want them to get support before they have to move home, move town, move their children to a new school, go to hospital; before they are injured, before they are killed.
SafeLives advocates for early intervention. If this legislation helps police officers recognise and take abuse seriously from the outset it will have made a powerful difference. Of course, we must be cautious about the implementation of this new law. We must work hard to train those people charged with identifying coercive control - not just the police but also health professionals, housing officers, teachers, social workers. We must work out how to support frontline professionals to use this legislation to make meaningful improvements to current support and provision.
This new law also speaks to the victims of domestic abuse up and down the country. It sends a message about the experience they're having. And that is why we must do what we can to promote it and raise awareness.
Domestic abuse campaigns and adverts often depict terrible scenes: pictures of women covered in bruises and men with their fists in the air. And this absolutely happens, and is a huge and abhorrent problem; indeed 100,000 people a year live are at risk of being murdered or seriously injured by a partner/ex-partner. However, not every victim of abuse will recognise this scene. We must raise awareness that where there is coercion and control, whether a relationship is violent or not, it is still abuse. For people whose decisions, choices, lives are not wholly theirs anymore - whose relationship has become a source of fear: it has never been acceptable, it has always been dangerous, and now it is illegal.