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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Mon 08-Dec-14 11:32:28

Guest post: 'Criminalising coercive control won't improve the lives of victims'

On December 8, Panorama heard from women who have endured non-violent domestic abuse, which is now likely to be made a criminal offence - here, chief executive of Refuge Sandra Horley argues that this is unworkable, and says what's needed is a radical shift in the way society responds to domestic violence

Sandra Horley

Chief executive of Refuge

Posted on: Mon 08-Dec-14 11:32:28


Lead photo

'If the police can't even carry out the day-to-day tasks of basic law enforcement, why are we rushing to arm them with even more laws?'

Perpetrators of domestic violence use a range of techniques to isolate, terrorise and intimidate their victims. Not all of these techniques are physical – many operate through subtle forms of what has become known as ‘coercive control’, which is defined by the government as “an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim”.

A few months ago, the Home Office opened a national consultation on whether to criminalise coercive control, and since then many voices have been raised to discuss the merits of such a move. I'm glad the government has been taking a closer look at this issue recently - controlling behaviour can take a huge toll on a woman's life - but I do not believe that this is the right way forward. Quite simply, I don't think that introducing a new offence will be workable in practice, and I do not believe that it will result in meaningful change for victims of domestic violence.

We already have enough laws to prosecute domestic violence. The problem is not a lack of legislation, but a lack of implementation. All too often, the police don't arrest even when there is evidence of serious physical violence, so how are they ever going to understand complex concepts like coercive control?

Last month I was in court as a jury read out its findings at the inquest into the death of a woman called Maria Stubbings. The jury decided that Essex Police had made a huge catalogue of failings that contributed to Maria's death in 2008. One of the specific things they found was the following: a “failure of frontline officers to perform basic policing duties, including failure to arrest perpetrator on numerous occasions.”

Surely it's more important to focus on getting the basics right first? This new offence may sounds good on paper, but it will do very little to improve the lives of women and children experiencing domestic violence.

Failure to perform basic policing duties. These words say it all.

If the police can't even carry out the day-to-day tasks of basic law enforcement, why are we rushing to arm them with even more laws? Surely it's more important to focus on getting the basics right first? This new offence may sounds good on paper, but it will do very little to improve the lives of women and children experiencing domestic violence.

I also fear that there will be problems with workability. Controlling behaviour can be incredibly subtle: it usually happens in private, domestic settings and isn't always ‘coercive’. Perpetrators often use extreme jealousy and possessiveness to control their partner's movements, for example, but these forms of abusive behaviour are often dressed up to look like ‘care’ or ‘concern’. “I just want you all to myself… I want to be with you all the time because I love you so much… I can't bear the thought of sharing you with anyone else…” These are all controlling techniques that serve to restrict a woman's freedom and social contact with others, but are they coercive? What evidence could be used to prove such behaviours in court?

Controlling behaviour can have a devastating impact on every aspect of a woman's life. She might lose friends, family, her job, even. She might become socially isolated or depressed. But how will this impact be measured and evidenced to criminal standards? Will we need expert evidence to explain to the courts how coercive control has affected a woman? Will we take her word for it? What happens when perpetrators turn the tables and bring allegations of coercive control against their victims?

Criminalising coercive control could also have other unintended consequences. We've all heard the expression, ‘it’s just a domestic’. This attitude governs the way too many police officers respond to desperate, terrified women and children. The words ‘domestic violence’ are heavy with deeply entrenched implications – that it is not a serious crime, that it's a private matter, just an argument that's just got a bit out of hand. What will happen if the police are given a new offence of ‘coercive control’ to wield? Won't they start thinking of this new crime in the same way? ‘It's just coercive control – it's not even physical violence.’ Serious physical offences could be downgraded and perpetrators under-charged.

There are serious, widespread problems with the way the police respond to victims of domestic violence in this country. The report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) earlier this year made this abundantly clear. These problems are not going to be fixed by the introduction of a new ‘coercive control’ law.

Instead, Refuge is calling for the government to open a public inquiry into the way victims of domestic violence are treated by all state agencies – not just the police. We believe a public inquiry would help to deliver a radical shift in the way we, as a society, respond to domestic violence. This is, after all, a problem on a national scale. We need widespread cultural change in order to reduce the horrific death toll from domestic violence, which currently stands at two women a week. Introducing ad hoc, unenforceable new laws is not the solution.

If you'd like to support Refuge's call for a public inquiry, you can find out more here.

Panorama, Domestic Abuse: Caught on Camera will air tonight at 8.30 on BBC1.

By Sandra Horley

Twitter: @RefugeCharity

wickedlazy Mon 08-Dec-14 12:32:52

I think the government should be more focused on support services for victims of coercive control, than criminalising perpetrators of coercive control. Or they should criminalise it quickly, then deal with the wider issues. There needs to be more counsellors trained to help victims in an understanding way, who have adequate knowledge and information about various aspects of coercive control. We can't just put these people in jail for a few months, then leave victims to deal with the fallout on their own, or in the hands of therapists etc who do not have a solid grasp of what they have been through or the issues involved. And gp's need more information on spotting and dealing with victims.

I think there should be adequate support services, to help victims (including any children involved) leave, give them a safe place to stay or make their way back to family, then to rebuild their confidence and lives, and help to deal with the perpetrators in future (such as a woman who has suffered coercive control, but whose ex husband has never abused their children and has successfully been granted access by a court). Often a woman will not leave the man doing this to her, but often these woman are told leave him, and that's it. These woman should have a place they can talk about things, without feeling judged for not leaving.

MephistophelesApprentice Mon 08-Dec-14 12:40:56

I agree that policing in the UK is demonstrably unfit for purpose in addressing domestic violence and that this should be addressed before any changes to the law. However, I cannot help but feel that criminalising coercive control will throw a spotlight on those abusive behaviours that do not spring from active violence and reinforce their unacceptability. I believe this will provide a degree of impetus for the rejection of such behaviours by victims of both genders.

My father, for instance, would have benefited from knowing that it is utterly unacceptable for one spouse to consistently tease, insult, gaslight and have sole control over the finances of the other. He might then have left his abuser, rather than living a half-life of misery and despair that provided an appalling model of 'successful' relationships for his children.

QueenoftheRant Mon 08-Dec-14 13:11:52

The problem is, exactly what does coercive control mean where when and for whom? It is very much a grey area and laws cannot deal with grey areas.

Raising consciousness would be nice. And not just about women victims but about children in these situations too. And of course the big barrier, as for other forms of abuse, is ensuring victims are listened to and believed.

My interest there is that I was born into a family where the father would probably qualify under the idea of coercive control -he was certainly a narrow-minded arrogant control freak and bully with a penchant for throwing violent temper tantrums, eventually resulting in his violently assaulting a family pet. It was never bad enough to report, until he assaulted that pet (whereupon mother swore me to secrecy). And who would I have reported to and been believed?

Until you have bruises/injuries available to show it is going to be very difficult -and even when you do people are not always believed.

whatdoesittake48 Mon 08-Dec-14 16:03:36

Agencies like women's aid are already doing an admirable job at helping women in this situation. The involvement of more red tape is unlikely to help. What would help is more money given to the relevant agencies so they can help women to understand what is happening to them and then leave.

queenoftheknight Mon 08-Dec-14 17:48:57

Pat Craven of the Freedom Programme should be at the head of this. Her programme changes lives, not just of victims, but some perpetrators too.

And cuts in funding should stop. immediately.

Family courts, especially lay magistrates need training, as do CAFCASS staff, as both in my experience, have been pitiful in their ignorance.

And society as a whole needs to address this, patriarchy and male entitlement are at the core.

As for it being a grey is not as grey as one might initially believe.

Quitelikely Mon 08-Dec-14 20:28:40

You can't just write off new legislation because you have issues over how it's going to be implemented. Sorry but a woman in your position ought to be supporting this legislation then highlighting the inadequacies within it as and when they occur, through the media.

Quitelikely Mon 08-Dec-14 20:35:16

How about educating women that abuse breeds abuse. How about a campaign demonstrating this.

It's terrible. It's terrible for the children. They repeat the cycle as they get older. And on it goes.

Not only that but most of the mums on mumsnet who are being abused seem to think their children are ok because they aren't witnessing the abuse. NOooooooooo. Not true. I don't need to go into detail because if you are an expert you will know how the children pick up on it.

TonightTonight Mon 08-Dec-14 22:34:41

It would help me in that I would find it validating. Whether there are many successful prosecutions is not the point.

JaneAHersey Tue 09-Dec-14 04:33:16

Many women who are experiencing emotional, physical or sexual violence have now lost the right to welfare and support if they have to leave their violent partners. Shelters for domestic violence victims have closed and savage legal aid cuts mean that justice and peace of mind is not possible for many victims.

As people are plunged deeper into poverty they become more stressed and domestic violence and child abuse increase. That is why there is currently an increase in family breakup and children being taken into Care where they will receive anything but and face a significant risk of sexual, emotional and physical abuse.

I left a violent husband in the 1970's with my 18 month old baby in the middle of the night, with no money after I sustained a severe life threatening beating. I knew because of the level of violence both my son and myself were at risk of extreme violence and possible death. I received no help from the authorities eventhough I was homeless. Eventually I was able to claim meagre Welfare.

It is well documented that the majority of people who suffer abuse desperately want to protect their children from suffering the same fate.

The BBC and other media organisations have persistently demonised vulnerable women and children and now feign sadness at the increase in abuse. The BBC could have used their investigative journalism four years ago to highlight the consequences of cuts to legal aid. Welfare and support.

JaneAHersey Tue 09-Dec-14 04:37:06

In addition, police numbers and funding have been cut drastically I doubt non violent abuse will be high priority for the police whether it is criminalised or not.

QueenoftheRant Tue 09-Dec-14 10:02:32

Not being a grey area? Where do you draw the line between abusive and bad parenting ( my perspective here is a child's I'm afraid)? How frequently does it have to happen? You hardly want to criminalise every parent under pressure who loses their rag once or twice.

Also how do you prove anything beyond normal is happening? Abusers are generally very good at projecting the blame on everyone else, that's how it works (and making an issue of family problems not being for outsiders). They'll simply deny anything is wrong, and the victims will usually support that because they're too confused to know what's going on. Unless you actually have injuries to show it will be very difficult.

How do you catch it? For kids the situation they're in is normal. You can hardly have every child in the country being interviewed 2ce-weekly on general principles just in case. I guess you'd have to rely on the mothers being intelligent enough to know it's happening themselves, and what happens when that isn't the case?

QueenoftheRant Tue 09-Dec-14 10:06:34

Plus at the moment Jane is right. There is no interest at top-level in protecting or helping the ordinary person. We can't even feed all our people, let alone implement any kind of borderline law.

Building new military bases in the middle east though, that can be managed

minklundy Tue 09-Dec-14 18:52:01


How about educating women that abuse breeds abuse. How about a campaign demonstrating this.

How about educating women abusers that abuse breeds abuse. How about a campaign demonstrating this.

It's terrible. It's terrible for the children. They repeat the cycle as they get older

This may happen but it isn't a given.

Not only that but most of the abusers abusing mums on mumsnet seem to think their children are ok because they aren't witnessing the abuse.NOooooooooo.

How about a campaign educating society that Domestic violence is not the fault of the person(s) being abused. And that the person responsible for the damage caused to the victim, both adults and their children, is the abuser!! That way we might get a bit less victim blaming on MN.

minklundy Tue 09-Dec-14 18:53:58

Surely one benefit of criminalising this would be that the perpetrators could be removed from the home? meaning victims can stay in their own homes instead of fleeing.

AWholeLottaNosy Tue 09-Dec-14 19:21:25

I agree that this law is unworkable but I do think that police need training in what the elements of coercive control are so that they can recognise them when called out to an incident ( as the CPS and Magistrates also should)

I also think there needs to be a bigger investment into the support systems for victims of DV, especially refuge space. Sadly it seems easier and cheaper for the Gvt to be seen to be doing something by enacting an unenforceable law than putting real ( and costly ) measures in place.

Bumpedbonce Wed 10-Dec-14 11:44:58

I'm sorry, I get tired of constantly seeing that police do not do enough for DV victims and don't understand the issues. Where I work we have regular inputs in coercive control and supporting victims, we use body worn cameras, we risk assess, we investigate, we arrest, then we pass it to CPS and they say no! It is not necessarily the police to blame

sugarcoatedthorns Fri 12-Dec-14 13:04:04

i have been reading through the comments and got pulled up extremely short at this:

I guess you'd have to rely on the mothers being intelligent enough

This comment demonstrates no knowledge of the nature of abuse.

... and it speaks absolute volumes that a man would sit in his (or her!) house whilst she walks the streets with a baby/child/ren - what normal man does this?

and why are women walking the streets terrified with their terrified children, because men are not dealt with, at all. The women and children are not society's 'problem' to sort out and fix the male abuser is. Society needs to take responsibility for directly nailing the perp, instead of stealing the poor battered kids off their poor battered mother instead of removing a dangerous man from their home???

In terms of the police issue. In many instances the police are doing a good job and in many instances CPS reject, the same as with rape cases, they are just rejected, and a lot of police work hard on the ground to gather evidence.

having said that a female PO stood over me telling me off for calling out the police to mediate contact. Meantime I sat, still and silent, in shock and awe at yet another attack, which was not even recorded as a crime, when I 'came too' i told her to leave that I didn't want anyone coming here to mediate contact that I had made it extremely clear several times on the phone to the police that I was terrified he was coming round and what could i do, I wanted him to simply leave me alone, but I had a telling off instead. Meanwhile he stands outside and says the most self-effacing things like what a great dad and upstanding person of the community he is? Does that seem 'appropriate' behaviour, defending your character in this way when nothing's been done 'apparently'?

Men's abuse service are pushing for men to be allowed into women's refuges, and they are using the service funded for women to support them.

sugarcoatedthorns Fri 12-Dec-14 13:07:39

I am trying to understand why a non-abusive male service designed to protect men, would even want men to go into women's refuge? Where is the intelligent thinking on that?

Do these services not in any way shape or form recognise that women become terrified of men and are in hiding? Which is the whole point; what sort of sickness is it to push 'abused' men in with abused women?

wholely unintelligent

QueenoftheRant Fri 12-Dec-14 15:13:01

"No knowledge of the nature of abuse". Perhaps. I said I had a child's perspective. But in my defence I was actually thinking of my own mother who was neither particularly intelligent or educated. I believe she was therefore more vulnerable to the confusions abuse causes and perpetuates. She started to blame me for much of my father's violent outbursts as well.

This thread is more about the subtle forms of domestic violence, coercive control and the like, and that induces confusion and tangles. The whole idea is that awareness and consciousness-raising would help. But criminalisng it, possibly not.

sugarcoatedthorns Fri 12-Dec-14 15:36:24

Childs perspective or adult. Intelligence or lack of makes no odds, or education. If we're all considering ourselves to be reasonably intelligent on here, and in the policing forces, and in judges, and CAFCASS and the services that deal with it, its nothing to do with the survivors intelligence or their education, unless meant in educaton about this specifically.

yes, and mothers don't act in a normal way as we'd expect from the outside perspective when in it. Saying that does not in any way detract from your right to be angry and disappointed in her at her actions.

I was made to blame for my father's outbursts also, and a child once realising they are not to blame will rightly blame the mother (and emotionally internally as an adult).

Maybe thinking in terms of the conmen and cults out there, who dazzle and brainwash, until someone doesn'tknow which way is up and believe what they are told. The key is that the woman is put into a survival situation where rational freedom of thought is gone, which is why it cannot be easily understood from the outside, plus very liberal dollops of her perp also being her rescuer and the only one who can fix it.

I do think criminalising it is helpful, but like all crimes, its got to be workable. Anyone who's been to court over contact will know how impossible it is to enforce the orders, because perps will twist and turn them into every conceivable interpretation. They are not clear and they are not steadfast, each statement on an order comes with an .. ah but if...

Just like he won't hit a woman EVER, ... unless...

QueenoftheRant Fri 12-Dec-14 15:50:22

For me I'm trying to think (well there's a first grin) - would it have benefitted us to have my father branded a criminal, with all the social stigma that implies? We would have lost his wage as a household - that is an issue sadly- and we would have lost his good points as well, those included ironically enough an interest in education, which my mum didn't share.

It would definitely have benefitted us for him, and my mum, to realise what they were doing and stop it.

Also I do think it is going to be very difficult to hammer out a law - which is just words - exactly describing these subtle forms as crimes and not generating false positives. Not workable.

I think we're all agreed current funding levels are derisory and cuts in public spending are not going to help anyone, by definition.

QueenoftheRant Fri 12-Dec-14 15:55:45

Perhaps the idea of compulsory parenting education for parents would have something going for it. Bring back Surestart, expanded.

sugarcoatedthorns Fri 12-Dec-14 16:03:24

i wish (if wishes came true and fairies existed) that my father had been removed from our home, that my mother got support to parent us out of it properly, and that society had acknowledged that what he did to us was always, under any circumstances, totally unacceptable, and that ways were put in place for him to still have that valuable input (say, education), into our lives. The non-abusive bits. However, with abusers, their 'good' bits also tend to be about control and abusive, and with men 'education' might be one of them, and pushing their DC hard down a certain route which is quite cruel and denying of the child's self, only getting approval by achieving what their FW father wants for them.

sugarcoatedthorns Fri 12-Dec-14 16:05:47

yes it would have benefitted to have him branded because that protects you as children once they can see properly who they are dealing with and not have it hidden from them and lied to about it and blamed for it.

Yes, its very painful, but with support that brings emotional resilience children adapt and learn so much through it, and learn how to have different relationships with different types and how to protect themselves from the realities of life knowing now that relationships can be very very dangerous things

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