29th January 2020
Becki Meakin – General Manager, Shaping Our Lives
Becki is a disabled person with expertise in the inclusive involvement of people from marginalised and under-represented communities. She has conducted many user-led research studies into the inequalities experienced by people when they use health and social care services. She has also worked with a range of organisations to develop inclusive involvement strategies including the British Association of Social Workers and the University of Essex. Becki appeared in the BBC Top 100 Women's Series 2018/19 for work with disabled women experiencing violence and abuse; raising awareness of the barriers disabled women face when trying to access support services. In this piece, alongside a previous blog by Cyrene Siriwardhana of Surviving Economic Abuse, Becki argues for the offence of coercive and controlling behaviour to be extended to family members who aren't living together.
Controlling or Coercive Behaviour by a partner, ex-partner or family member is already recognised as domestic abuse, and is an offence under section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015. But section 76 contains two exclusions which leave certain victims unprotected by the criminal law, namely, anyone being abused by a family member or ex-partner who is not living with them.
The need to plug this gap in the law is illustrated by the account of the survivor Jane*. Jane’s abuse lasted 22 years, only ending with the death of her sister. Several safeguarding alerts were raised with Social Services by concerned friends and local charities, but fear induced by coercion inhibited her from discussing the reality of her degrading situation, to which she had become thoroughly habituated. The Office of the Public Guardian also declined to intervene. Without any possibility of a ‘victimless’ domestic abuse prosecution, the Care Act 2014 and the Mental Capacity Act 2005 were both effectively powerless to safeguard this lady.
There is no other suitable offence for tackling this kind of abuse. It is not in general covered by offences of stalking or harassment. Elderly or disabled people who live alone, but are dependent in some way on a relative, are particularly vulnerable to exactly the same kind of controlling or coercive behaviour – and in particular economic abuse – as can be perpetrated by relatives living at the same address. It is the relationship of dependency, rather than their living arrangements, which enables control and coercion not only to take place but also to lie hidden from the authorities.
Jane’s story shows that this kind of abuse need not resemble stalking or harassment any more than does controlling or coercive behaviour between partners, or between relatives/ex-partners who live together.
The case for change is explained more fully in a joint submission by Shaping Our Lives and Andrew Todd to the Joint Select Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill 2017-19.
Action on Elder Abuse found that over 50% of financial abuse reported to them is carried out by adult children. They said, “elder abuse within older people’s own homes … often perpetrated by members of their own family ... is the hidden abuse of UK society”.
Shaping Our Lives advised in relation to disabled victims, “caring relationships provide additional opportunities for perpetrators to abuse and coercively control. The perpetrator can coercively control the disabled person by withholding essential support such as food, medication or prevent them going out independently. This type of abuse can be done by a family member wherever they live and this type of coercive control would not be easily recognised by the legislation around stalking”.
Advice to government from a policing expert said, “there is a gap where harassment and stalking legislation does not explicitly cover behaviour within the context of a familial relationship”
The time has now come for this kind of abuse to be recognised by the criminal law for what it is, namely controlling or coercive behaviour in a family relationship.