On 29 December 2015 Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 came into force. It creates the specific offence of “controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship” where the victim and the abuser are, as the Act puts it, “personally connected”. The offence is triable in either the Magistrates or Crown Courts and punishable by a fine and/or a maximum sentence of 5 years. Controlling or coercive behaviour is defined as causing the victim to fear that violence will be used against him/her on at least two occasions (echoes of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 here) or the abuser’s behaviour causes the victim serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect upon the victim’s usual day-to-day activities.
Examples of coercive behaviour are threats, humiliation, and intimidation designed to harm, punish, frighten or denigrate the victim. Examples of controlling behaviour include isolating or exploiting the victim, depriving the victim of his or her independence or an overbearing regulation of the victim’s life. Online communications and tracking devices on mobile phones and cars can all be used as evidence. Critically the court will also hear real life evidence from friends, names or family of the victim’s humiliation and isolation and the abuser’s manipulation.
As the Home Office Guidance points out, coercive or controlling behaviour can be more subversive and insidious than stalking. Such behaviour is not necessarily covered by existing stalking and harassment legislation. So prior to 29 December 2015 the police, and hence the victim too, were rendered powerless where, by way of Home Office example, there existed an ongoing intimate relationship with the abuse interspersed with affection.
According to Home Office Guidance section 76 is part of the Government’s campaign to ensure that failings identified in thereport,‘Everyone’s business: Improving the police response to domestic abuse’ (Mar 2014), which concluded that, despite considerable improvements made over the last decade, the overall police response to victims of domestic abuse was not good enough. HMIC’s latest report from December 2015 assesses the progress made in responding to and protecting victims of domestic abuse.
Everyone’s Business found that in 2013/14 2 million people were victims of domestic violence/abuse and that 1 million telephone calls were made to the police reporting domestic abuse incidents in the year prior to August 2013. This is to be contrasted with Crown Prosecution Service figures which reveal that only 78,000 prosecutions were brought in 2013/14. Whilst this shows a clear increase in prosecutions, many victims (if the statistics are to be believed – and I see no reason why they should not be) do not get the protection of the law to which they are entitled.
The good intentions behind the implementation of Section 76 are to be welcomed. However, as with all legalisation, success depends on its real world application requiring courage by victim, family and friends to report the crime. Equally important is for the police not to be hoodwinked by spurious allegations. Can we trust the police/CPS to examine each complaint rigorously? Examine recent history of police incompetence in conducting proper investigations in domestic or sexual cases and form your own view.