As of the 29th December 2015 new legislation allows the Police to prosecute people deemed to be acting in a controlling and coercive manner against a family member.
Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 states that a person commits an offence if-
A person repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards another person that is controlling or coercive,
At the time the offender and victim are personally connected,
The behaviour has a serious effect on the victim, and
The offender knows or ought to have known the behaviour would have a serious effect on the victim.
People are personally connected if they are, or have been, in a relationship or they are members of the same family.
Definition of Coercive Behaviour
Coercive behaviour is deemed to be an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.
Such behaviour might include:
isolating a person from their friends and family;
depriving them of their basic needs;
monitoring their time;
monitoring a person via online communication tools or using spyware;
taking control over aspects of their everyday life, such as where they can go, who they can see, what to wear and when they can sleep;
depriving them of access to support services, such as specialist support or medical services;
repeatedly putting them down such as telling them they are worthless;
enforcing rules and activity which humiliate, degrade or dehumanise the victim;
The maximum sentence for the offence is five years though it is anticipated that the majority of such cases would be prosecuted in the Magistrates Court where the maximum penalty is six months.
Domestic Violence – Rationale for the Law
The Government has for several years been attempting to clamp down on a perceived problem with cases of domestic violence. Domestic violence comes in many forms, from assault to harassment. A new offence of stalking was introduced several years ago to tackle more specific types of harassment where victims were being followed in person or online. The Government felt that there was still a gap in the law and that this new legislation allowed prosecutions in situations which weren’t covered.
Controlling and Coercive Behaviour – Possible Issues
The first issue is whether the law is really needed. Other offences including assault (putting someone in fear of immediate violence) and harassment seemingly cover most instances where the new legislation is aimed.
A second issue is what exactly someone has to do to be guilty of the offence. Would for example constant arguments over what channel to watch lead to a call to the Police? There is a concern that this legislation could cover aspects of normal relationships where there are disputes.
A practical problem is whether or not victims would in fact cooperate with a prosecution for such an offence. If they have been in such a controlling relationship it would be difficult to envisage them wanting to prosecute a perpetrator due to their fear of them. Numerous domestic violence prosecutions fail at present due to victims not cooperating in such cases.
There is also a potential for misuse. Often in cases of broken relationships where a couple have children, there is a real potential for one party to make such an allegation falsely to boost their chances of custody of the children.
The offence of stalking was similarly brought in to cover concerns about domestic violence. Some cases have been brought under this law, but it seems rare it is used. Prosecutors seem to prefer prosecuting someone for harassment which is easier to prove. It remains to be seen if this new legislation is in fact useful or whether it will ultimately vanish into obscurity.
Toby Wilbraham – Specialist Criminal Lawyer
Written by Toby Wilbraham, Criminal Defence Solicitor. Toby is a highly experienced advocate in the Magistrates Court and a Higher Court Advocate in the Crown Court. Toby specialises in defending clients facing allegations of domestic violence with a notable success and a high acquittal rate.