For the first time, the Crown Prosecution Service can now prosecute specific offences of domestic abuse if there is evidence of repeated, continuous, controlling or coercive behaviour.  Under new legislation that came into force last month in England and Wales, domestic abusers can now be jailed for up to five years if convicted.

Aim of new law

The purpose of this new law is to target those that subject spouses, partners and family members to harassment, psychological abuse and emotional abuse but stop short of physically abusing them.

Why was this brought in?

The new law was brought into play following a Home Office consultation in which 85% of the participants said that the existing law did not provide sufficient protection.  It also comes as the Citizens Advice bureau published figures that there has been a 24% increase in referrals for advice regarding domestic abuse. Police watchdogs also revealed that there has been a “staggering” increase in reports of domestic abuse, with recorded crimes jumping by almost a third in less than two years.

Campaigners have long called for a change in the law to put psychological exploitation on a par with physical violence, in the hope it will encourage more victims to come forward and report abuse in the home.

Alison Saunders, Director of public prosecutions, reported ‘this behaviour can be incredibly harmful in an abusive relationship where one person holds more power than the other, even if on the face of it this behaviour might seem playful, innocuous or loving.’

So what will the new law cover?

Domestic violence and abuse covered under the new law is defined as ‘any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to psychological, physical, sexual, financial and emotional.’

Coercive behaviour is defined as a continuing act or pattern of acts which are used to harm, punish or frighten a victim and controlling behaviour covers a range of conduct designed to make a person subordinate or dependent.  The Crown Prosecution Service has provided advice and said that examples of this could include:

  • Stopping a victim from socialising;
  • Limiting access to family, friends and finances;
  • Monitoring a person via online communication tools, for example using tracking apps on mobile phones;
  • Threats to reveal or publish private information;
  • Dictating what a person wears

Home Office guidance says that in order for the offence to apply, the pattern of behaviour must have a “serious effect” on the victim.  This means they must have either feared violence will be used against them on at least two occasions, or, they have been caused serious alarm or distress which has a “substantial adverse effect” on their usual day-to-day activities.

Louisa Rolfe, the national police lead on domestic abuse, said the new offence “will provide more opportunities to evidence other forms of domestic abuse, beyond physical violence“.

The law in practice

The new law has been cited as ‘landmark legislation’ for protecting victims.  In order to put this into practice, however, it is now vital that police officers with the power to use it are aware of the new legislation and receive the appropriate training to enforce such prosecutions.