Men who exercise “coercive control” over their partners by restricting their personal or financial freedom, or through overt criticism could face up to 14 years in jail under new laws set to be announced by Home Secretary Theresa May this week. Campaigners, who have been arguing for a change in the law to bring emotional abuse into line legally with physical abuse, have praised the proposals as a “major step forward”.
The new law will be introduced as a series of amendments to the Serious Crime Bill, and will alter the legal definition of domestic abuse to include psychological, as well as physical damage. It is expected to pass into law in the new year.
May has been attempting to find a way to introduce these proposals for some time now. In 2011, she described coercive control as “a complex pattern of abuse using power and psychological control over another — financial control, verbal abuse, forced social isolation. These incidents may vary in seriousness and may be repeated over time.”
Last August the Home Office launched a consultation to look at strengthening the law. The consultation document read: “Creating a specific offence of domestic abuse may send a clear, consistent message to frontline agencies that nonviolent control in an intimate relationship is criminal.
“Explicitly capturing this in legislation may also help victims identify the behaviour they are suffering as wrong and encourage them to report it, and cause perpetrators to rethink their controlling behaviour.”
Seema Malhotra, Labour’s shadow anti-domestic violence minister, suggested earlier this year that husbands criticising their wives weight or appearance may be guilty of domestic abuse. “It can be part of a pattern of controlling behaviour that leaves people feeling fearful and terrorised in their own homes,” she said, and may be an “indicator of physical abuse in the future”.
On hearing that the changes were set to take place, Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd, who introduced a Ten Minute Rule Bill on coercive control in February was delighted. “Following the Home Office’s consultation upon the issue it is clear that there is a real and urgent need for this change in the law which will effectively underpin the definition of domestic violence adopted by the Association of Chief Police Officers, which already includes coercive control,” he said.
“It is a fact that for every single act of abuse or violence there are usually thirty or more previous occurrences which have not been the subject of any reporting.
“Coercive behaviour can be as insidious and as damaging as physical violence and this must be recognised in law.”
And Harry Fletcher, director of Digital-Trust, who helped worked on details of the Bill said: “Any move to criminalise coercive control without time limits will be a major step forward. It will increase victims’ confidence in the system and lead to more successful prosecutions.”
But not everyone is happy with the legal changes. Three years ago, when similar changes were being proposed by the Theresa May, Erin Pizzey, who in the 1970s set up the network of safe houses now run by Refuge, slammed the proposals as trivialising domestic violence.
She took to the Daily Mail to offer a detailed explanation of her criticisms, saying: “When I began my refuge four decades ago, I took in victims of severe domestic violence who were literally running for their lives. They were prepared to leave everything behind to escape the horrendous situation they found themselves in for a safe house for themselves and their children.
“Unless you have seen real, shocking abuse as I have, it is difficult to imagine some of the awful violence that people can inflict on each other in the home. And that’s why I’m convinced that bringing other, lesser, wrongs under this same legal umbrella does a great disservice to the women who really suffer.
“At this rate, we’ll all end up under arrest, and that is not a situation that’s going to help the police tackle the cases of true physical violence which must be stamped out.
“People behave badly in relationships because we have human frailties. This is not an area in which the State should meddle; leave it to relationship counsellors and divorce lawyers. They already help people escape toxic relationships.”
Pizzey heavily criticised the organisations that campaign on domestic abuse and which pushed for the change in the law, saying that they were on a “feminist mission to demonise men”. She has fallen out with Refuge over their policy not to allow any male over the age of 12 entry to their safe houses, including the teenage sons of women fleeing abuse.
“The National Federation of Women’s Aid and Refuge have a vested interest in pushing this agenda,” she said. “This is girls-only empire building, and it is highly lucrative at that. Refuge has an annual income of more than £10 million from both public and private donations. Cherie Booth is a patron. The heads of these organisations are on very generous salaries.
“And they are on a feminist mission to demonise men — even those who never have and never will hit a woman. Meanwhile, the male politicians are jumping on the bandwagon because they think ‘women’s issues’ will win them the female vote.”
“Women want to see real crimes punished and vulnerable children protected. But if the law changes and the definition of domestic violence is watered down, the genuine victims of abuse will suffer because the authorities will have less time and energy to devote to helping them,” she concluded.