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This content originally appeared in our newsletter between  August and September 2014 and reflected our views at the time.

Diana Barran, Polly Neate and Laura Richards explain why they're backing proposals to criminalise coercive control.

It's an issue that's been widely publicised over recent months: whether the law, as it stands, adequately protects victims of domestic abuse. Last month (21st August), following a high profile campaign by Women's AidPaladin and the Sara Charlton Charitable Foundation, the Home Secretary opened a consultation to establish whether a specific offence capturing patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour in intimate relationships should be introduced.

To reflect patterns of abuse 

According to Laura Richards, Chief Executive and Founder of Paladin, current legislation falls short because it is too selective. She explains that the laws used to prosecute domestic abuse at the moment – such as assault, rape, kidnapping and murder – do not describe its essence. “It misses the fact that domestic abuse is about fear, coercive control and continuing acts.” It is these non-physical manifestations of power and control – which Laura likens to brainwashing – that are not recognised in law, despite often being the worst part for victims. “We need an offence that reflects the reality of domestic abuse in all its guises,” she emphasises.

For Laura, the recent reforms to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 – in which she was also heavily involved in the campaign for – offer a useful starting point when considering ways of modernising the current law to include a pattern of abusive behaviour. “Stalking laws criminalise a course of conduct, target patterns and address a broad range of harm, but they can't be used for ongoing relationships.” Like the stalking law before it, Laura hopes that criminalising this form of abuse will have a similar impact. “It would send a strong message that abusive and coercively controlling behaviour within a relationship is unacceptable and will not be tolerated."

To improve the police response 

It seems likely, then, that any change in legislation will require a genuine change in attitudes to domestic abuse in order to have the desired effect. The police, in particular, have come under a great deal of scrutiny in recent months in relation to this. The 2013 review of forces in England and Wales by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), whose findings were published in March, concluded that domestic abuse is rarely seen as a serious crime. It also identified that frontline officers lack a proper understanding of the issue – particularly around coercive control.

Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women's Aid, is more than aware of how this outlook translates into practice. “The main reason victims don't come forward is because they get such a poor response when they do,” she reflects. “The police just don't have the ability to act when the harm is mainly psychological, and they don't have the ability to criminalise or arrest anyone for a pattern of behaviour.”

Like Laura, Polly hopes a change in the law will be the wake-up call the criminal justice system needs to address the longstanding culture surrounding domestic abuse. She describes the lack of understanding among police as “profound”, but is a firm believer that improving the police response will be the first step towards increasing reporting rates. “If the consultation does lead to a change in the law, it needs to be accompanied by some significant awareness raising activity.” Training will also be essential. This is something which, at the moment, Polly believes not enough police forces – or indeed any other agencies – are investing properly in. “However, there is an opportunity in the concerted response to the HMIC Inquiry," she adds, "and if the law is changed this will need to inform that response.”

But Polly is clear that the police are just a part of the overall response, as many victims will only approach them when they feel safe to do so. If we want victims to disclose earlier, Polly says, we need to think about who that is likely to be to, and ensure there are clear referral routes in place. “We need to think much more widely than we do now to identify where that early identification can best happen,” she emphasises.

As a springboard for wider change 

CAADA's research indicates that less than a fifth (17%) of victims who experience no physical abuse will make a report to the police. "Victims call the police in a crisis,” Diana Barran, Chief Executive, explains. “Those who are worn down day after day by emotional abuse just won't make contact.”

And there are other victims too: the impact on children of growing up in a home where coercive control is present is well documented. Perpetrators may even cause them to become implicit in the abuse. “Children are often the biggest victims in abusive relationships,” Diana continues. “Our only concern would be that criminalising this type of behaviour won't necessarily help them.” However, since a non-molestation order can be used as proof of domestic abuse to access legal aid in applications for orders under the Children Act, this route will ensure more children living with these forms of abuse can access protection.

For CAADA, it's crucial that a non-criminal justice route is offered to allow victims to address their situation in a way that works for them. “This approach would have the advantage - particularly in cases where couples have not separated - of avoiding the immediate criminalisation of the perpetrator, and taking the opportunity to offer practical remedies for this type of behaviour,” Diana says. “We are also concerned that the definition of the behaviours that are criminalised is tightly drawn. We don't want a situation either where every unhappy relationship is criminalised or where the legislation can be used by perpetrators against their victims.”

With around 80% of IDVA clients experiencing coercive control, it's clear that this is not an issue that will be resolved overnight. Like stalking before it, any change in the law will take time to embed. But combined with a package of awareness raising, training and the right leadership from police and other public agencies, the legislation looks to be a good foundation for better supporting victims.