Police failing to use new law against coercive domestic abuse

Lawyers say controlling and coercive behaviour powers should be used to help victims before relationships turn violent

A law protecting victims of domestic violence from controlling and coercive behaviour has been used just 62 times in the first six months since it was introduced.

Eight out of 22 police forces in England and Wales have not charged a single person with the offence, according to a Freedom of Information request. Nine forces have made two or fewer charges since the new law came into effect in December 2015, including Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Warwickshire and Wiltshire.

Emma Pearmaine, head of family services at the law firm Simpson Millar, which made the FoI request, called for increased awareness and understanding of the new laws and said more specialist training for police officers could be necessary.

“Coercive control can be many things but essentially it comes down to people exerting control via a pattern of behaviours, and these can sometimes be difficult to spot from the outside if you don’t know where to look or which questions to ask,” she said. “More dedicated training on the new legislation and how coercion can impact on a victim’s life might help push up the number of people who are identified as offenders and prosecuted.

“One of the biggest concerns when it comes to coercive control is that victims are not aware that being isolated from friends or family, having access to money and bank accounts restricted, or even having personal medical conditions revealed, is domestic abuse and, now, a criminal offence.

“With less than three coercive controls on average per police authority, more needs to be done so that people can involve the police at an early stage before coercion turns into physical abuse.”

Three forces – Kent, Hertfordshire and Norfolk – all reported prosecutions of 10 or more, but most forces launched fewer than two coercive control actions between December 2015 and June 2016. Nine forces are yet to charge a single person under the law.

On 29 December, under the Serious Crime Act 2015, controlling or coercive behaviour in intimate or familial relationships became a new offence, punishable with a maximum prison sentence of five years.

But although Citizens Advice stepped in to help 3,000 victims of emotional abuse and 900 victims of financial abuse in 2014, take-up of the new powers to prosecute offenders has so far been low.

Lucy Hastings, a director at the independent charity Victim Support, said: “These findings demonstrate that there is still some way to go in improving the support provided to victims and witnesses, before they will be getting the information they need and the respect they deserve.

“Our research tells us that proper communication between the police and victims of crime is vital. Without it, victims may feel isolated and come to believe that their case is being neglected or not taken seriously. This makes them less likely to report crime in the future and ultimately undermines public confidence in the wider justice system.

“All police staff should be fully aware of their obligations under the Victims’ Code and measures put in place to ensure that those obligations are being met.”

The FoI data reveals little improvement has been made since May when Theresa May, then home secretary, lambasted officers at the Police Federation’s annual conference for not protecting victims of domestic violence. She said new powers to tackle domestic abuse, including controlling or coercive behaviour, were effective but were “not being used anywhere near as systematically as they could be”.

At the time of her speech, the first conviction for coercive control had taken place and many more cases were pending. Since then, however, use of the new law seems to have stalled. In the same six-month period there were more than 20,000 prosecutions for domestic violence.

The coercive or controlling behaviour offence aims to close a gap in the law around patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour during a relationship between intimate partners, former partners who still live together, or family members.

It was intended to help victims experiencing the type of behaviour that stops short of serious physical violence but amounts to extreme psychological and emotional abuse.

The law states that coercive or controlling behaviour does not relate to a single incident. Instead it is a “purposeful pattern of incidents that occur over time enabling someone to exert power and control, or coerce another”.

On the day the law was introduced, Karen Bradley, the minister for preventing abuse and exploitation, said: “Our new coercive or controlling behaviour offence will protect victims who would otherwise be subjected to sustained patterns of abuse that can lead to total control of their lives by the perpetrator.

“Victims who would otherwise be subjected to sustained patterns of domestic abuse will be better protected under [this] new offence.”

Contributor

Amelia Hill

The GuardianTramp

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