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Coercive Control: Punishing ‘a violation of human rights’

New legislation targeting emotional and psychological domestic abuse is now in force. Laura Seebohm from the charity Changing Lives welcomes it as an important step and explores the implications.

woman cryingA new domestic abuse law came into force last week, targeting those who are guilty of perpetrating ‘coercive control’, which refers to the emotional and psychological abuse of a partner using threats and rules of behaviour, as well as physical violence. A conviction could result in up to five years imprisonment.

We asked Laura Seebohm, the director of Women’s Services at national charity Changing Lives to set out the context of this new legislation and assess what it’s going to mean for those it’s been created for.

At Changing Lives we support hundreds of women and girls who come to us each week.

Last year we consulted as many as possible to find out how effectively our services meet their needs. Unsurprisingly – and overwhelmingly – they told us that domestic abuse is the most pressing issue.

Interestingly, we found they rarely mentioned physical violence. What they described was the persistent intimidation and fear which dominates every aspect of their lives.

One of the women we talked to described her situation as being like a puppet. Every action she took was a string being pulled by her partner. When she eventually sought refuge, the strings were cut and she was then expected to stand right back up and live a life free from abuse. But she described feeling like a ‘crumpled heap’, so low in confidence and autonomy that she was unable to cope.

Many of the women we spoke to tell us they continue to live under the rules and controls imposed by an abusive partner long after they have left the relationship.

“Getting the police, social services and other agencies to understand the dynamics of coercive control is no small task. We still regularly hear professionals who struggle to get past the question ‘why doesn’t she just leave?’”

It became clear that existing responses to domestic abuse have often been missing the point. Resources are targeted at those victims assessed as ‘high risk’ of physical harm, and support is short-term and focused on enhancing safety. While prevention of serious harm is clearly imperative and has been successful in many cases, it fails to address the long-term harm caused by fear and control.

So we see extremely high levels of repeat victimisation either by the same perpetrator or serial abusive relationships. Without rebuilding resilience and recovery, the ‘puppet’ analogy remains true.

Up until last week, our Criminal Justice System has really only recognised domestic abuse when there has been an incident of physical violence perpetrated by a partner or ex-partner. But the overwhelming experience of survivors is what is described as Coercive Control – a term developed by Evan Stark to help us understand domestic abuse as more than ‘a fight’. He talks about a pattern of behaviour which seeks to take away the victim’s liberty and freedom, ‘to strip away their sense of self’.

In 2014 an HMIC report Everyone’s Business highlighted this point; that police forces across the UK were not responding satisfactorily to victims of domestic abuse and had little understanding of the reality and context of how it is manifested. A Solace report in the same year found that 95 per cent of domestic abuse survivors experience coercive control.

“Different questions will need to be asked. If a police officer asks ‘what happened’ they will get very little evidence for this new law. If they ask what a week in someone’s life is like they will get a very different picture.”

This message has been quickly and decisively taken on board, and on 29 December the Serious Crimes Act 2015 section 76 added ‘coercive control’ into UK criminal law. The amendment to the Crimes Act was actually made earlier in the year, but only implemented once training and guidelines were put in place for police and the Crown Prosecution Service.

Home Office guidance says the controlling or coercive behaviour must take place ‘repeatedly and continuously’. The behaviour must have a serious effect on the victim, causing them to fear violence will be used against them or causing serious distress. The perpetrator ‘ought to know’ that the behaviours would have a serious effect on the victim. The offence will carry a maximum of five years’ imprisonment, a fine or both.

How it is policed though, is still somewhat unknown. Getting the police, social services and other agencies to understand the dynamics of coercive control is no small task. We still regularly hear professionals who struggle to get past the question ‘why doesn’t she just leave?’ Without a genuine understanding of coercive control, the law will simply not be implemented.

The law expects our services to develop a sophisticated understanding of complex social dynamics as integral to public protection. In practice, this means picking up signs much more subtle than the bruises and cuts which have previously dominated criminal incidents.

Different questions will need to be asked. If a police officer asks “what happened” they will get very little evidence for this new law. If they ask what a week in someone’s life is like they will get a very different picture.

“One of the women we talked to described her situation as being like a puppet. Every action she took was a string being pulled by her partner. When she eventually sought refuge, she felt like a ‘crumpled heap’.”

A culture shift is already taking place with police and crime commissioners across the country, placing the needs of victims and protection of the most vulnerable as priority. The police are gradually being asked to move away from their traditional professional boundaries towards an understanding of safeguarding, gender and victimology informing operational practice.

In the case of domestic abuse, this means moving towards close collaboration with feminist women’s organisations – not obvious partnerships. However, it is when professions dare to reach out to the margins of their traditional boundaries and integrate with other disciplines that we see innovation and change. Never is this more pertinent than for the new law of coercive control.

By adding coercive control to criminal law, the UK is adopting international best practice. It will redress and validate the experience of hundreds of victims of domestic abuse and treat the assault on autonomy with the seriousness it deserves.

Evan Stark describes coercive control as a violation against human rights; as such it is a crime against not only the individual but the state and this new law takes us some way to treat it as such.

Laura Seebohm is the director of Women’s Services at charity Changing Lives.

@changinglives__

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Written by Standard Issue