New legislative powers came into force on 29 December 2015 to add to the growing social and legal recognition of the extent of domestic abuse and to tackle it head-on by use of the criminal law.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) can now prosecute offenders whose domestic abuse includes “controlling or coercive behaviour” in addition to their usual powers to prosecute for other forms of domestic abuse/violence such as assault etc.
The kind of controlling behaviour which is contemplated includes:
- Restricting access to family or friends
- Monitoring and preventing social and domestic interaction
- Restricting internet/social media access or controlling this
- Preventing a partner from having a bank account or similar independence
- Humiliating someone to friends or family such as putting them down or constantly criticising them
Such behaviours can have a serious effect on a person’s life and wellbeing. It is more insidious and less observable than physical assault as there are no bruises, but the victim can be coerced in to obeying the abusive partner and thereby suffers harm with long term consequences.
Some of the above actions are now seen as a restriction on basic human rights.
The law now recognises this form of abuse as equally serious as domestic violence or other abuse, and the police/CPS can take action in the criminal courts, where an offender could be punishable by up to five years in prison.
Better legal and social recognition of this form of domestic abuse means more willingness to help victims of abusive relationships who may have suffered for years.
Nevertheless, such criminal prosecution requires evidence, primarily from the victim although it can include additional witness statements by family or friends, and can include evidence such as emails or texts on mobile phones, tracking devices on mobile phones or GPS systems.
In Family Law cases, victims of domestic abuse have always been able to apply for an injunction (now called a non-molestation order) to prevent such behaviour and this will continue to be available. The drawback for many such victims has been the cost, with restricted access to legal aid deterring many such victims.
Even then, the prospect of Court appearances and giving evidence remains daunting and will probably remain so under these new criminal powers.
Victims of domestic abuse of this type can issue divorce proceedings based on such behaviour and the Court will now take into account this behaviour when dealing with financial and property issues following a divorce. The perpetrator’s “conduct” can be deemed to be deserving punishment and the share of matrimonial assets adjusted accordingly.
“This has always been the case but generally only where such behaviour was considered “gross and obvious”, which sets the bar high. It will be interesting to see whether this standard is lowered following successful criminal prosecutions under this new law.”