Serious Crime Bill [HL]

Written evidence submitted by the Mothers' Union (SC 10)

Amendments on strengthening the law on domestic abuse

1. Mothers' Union is a Christian membership organisation, supporting family life through fellowship, projects and campaigning in 83 countries. We have a particular interest in gender equality and gender-based violence, and campaign at the national and international level on these issues.

2. Mothers' Union responded to the Home Office consultation on strengthening the law on domestic violence in October 2014 and we have a number of comments on the proposed amendments that introduce clauses on coercive and controlling behaviour in an intimate and family relationship.

3. Mothers' Union welcomed the proposals in Strengthening the Law on Domestic Abuse to criminalise a pattern of controlling and coercive behaviour in intimate relationships; and we therefore welcome these amendments. However, we believe that a number of points need to be clarified to ensure that a law would be enforceable and effective.

4. NC3 (2)(a and b): Mothers’ Union would be concerned about the use of a fine as a stand-alone sentence. We are not convinced that this acts as an appropriate deterrent and feel it would signify that coercive and controlling behaviour was still seen as ‘lesser’ abuse; whereas it usually underpins other forms of domestic abuse.

5. NC3 (3)(b): Mothers’ Union welcomes this section, which prevents an alleged victim’s current address from being disclosed by a court, local authority or other public body if it is deemed as placing the victim at risk. This could remove some potential concerns for victims about reporting an offence and pursuing a case through the criminal justice system, as well as manifestly providing for their safety.

6. NC3 (3)(c): We welcome any proposals to rehabilitate and change the behaviour of perpetrators of domestic abuse and would like to see the Government invest further in such programmes. However, given the ingrained nature of abusive behaviour, short term programmes may not be sufficient to create the necessary transformation and therefore we recommend the Government invest in long term rehabilitation, both during and after any prison sentence or other non-custodial conviction. In particular, such programmes or counselling need to address the abusers attitude towards power and control.

7. NC4 (1): We welcome the absence of statutory time limits on the offence of coercive control as this will help victims of domestic abuse to access justice for past or historic offences.

8. NC5 (1)(c): Mothers’ Union would question setting age parameters on victims of coercion and control in an intimate partner setting. Whilst we recognise that other areas of the law do afford some alternate protections for children and young people, domestic abuse - in particular the dynamic of power, coercion and control - affects people in relationships across the board, including those under 16. A 2009 study by Bristol University on behalf of the NSPCC found that 13 – 15 year olds were just as likely to experience certain forms of abuse within intimate partner relationships as those aged 16 and over. [1] We recommend that this definition for domestic abuse does not exclude people under the age of 16.

9. NC5 (2): It is unclear as to whether all of the patterns of behaviour listed must be demonstrated in order for a definition of coercion and control to be met, or if a definition is achieved by one or more of the conditions being met.

10. NC6: It is essential that a National Framework for the implementation of this legislation, along with appropriate monitoring tools is introduced, as well as supporting the call for police services to work closely with local domestic violence experts and agencies. This legislation has the potential to be extremely effective in combating controlling and coercive behaviour in intimate or family relationships. However, great care should be taken with implementation, to ensure that it works to protect and provide justice for survivors of domestic abuse. Mothers’ Union welcomes the criminalisation of coercion and control, as a move away from outdated and unhelpful ways of dealing with domestic abuse in the legal system, where more emphasis was placed on one off physically violent incidents, than on the pattern of behaviour which actually characterises domestic abuse.

11. NC9 (1)(a): There needs to be clear guidance on what constitutes repeated or continuous behaviour. Our concern is that if clarity is lacking within this legislation, it will not be effective or enforceable, and will therefore fail to provide appropriate protections and justice to those who have experienced domestic abuse. Without further clarity within this definition, we could see wide variations in the way in which this law is applied and used. For example whilst one police force area may consider repeated or continuous to be behaviour which has occurred on more than one occasion, another police force area may take continuous to mean that it has been unceasing and without break, which obviously provides two very different levels of protection. Whilst we welcome further guidance which will accompany this legislation, we urge that this definition is given more clarity, in order to make it effective and usable.

12. NC9 (1)(c) and (4)(b): We would like to see clearer parameters surrounding the measurement of the ‘serious and substantial adverse effect’ of the behaviour on a victim’s life. Due to the nature of domestic abuse, and the mental and emotional impact on the victim [2] , the victim may not be capable of adequately assessing the impact that this has had on them. Therefore we suggest the introduction of a clear and concise measurement as to what constitutes a ‘serious and substantial adverse effect." Failure to do so may result in subjective law enforcement which may fail to protect and provide justice adequately for those who have experienced domestic abuse.

13. We have concerns surrounding the wording used in section 1 (c) in NC9 that "the behaviour has a serious impact on B" and in section 4 (b) that the behaviour "causes B serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on B’s usual day to day activities. This is due to the fact that the actual effect on the victim is being measured here, rather than the behaviour of the perpetrator.

14. This can be illustrated in the example of a perpetrator who exhibits coercive and controlling behaviour by hiding their partner’s car keys in order to attempt to prevent the partner from being able to go to work, as part of a continued pattern of behaviour with the aim of isolation, control and dependence. This action, intention and behaviour could be identical in two different scenarios, however these could then play out in very different ways. In one scenario the victim of this behaviour could be unable to get to work and consequently lose their job, resulting in further isolation, control and dependence and thus the behaviour could be considered to have had a serious impact on B. However in the second scenario, the victim may have been able to call a family member to take them to work, caught a bus, or may have had a more understanding employer, or more secure job. This may have meant that on this occasion the behaviour did not have a serious impact on B, however this does not mean that the behaviour was not coercive or controlling. Many factors can affect the actual impact of coercive and controlling behaviour on a victim, such as where they live, whether they have a support network nearby, their previous background or educational attainment, personality or resilience. Our concern is that if this legislation is established on the basis of its actual impact upon a victim, then the offence becomes about the victim and their reaction to the behaviour, rather than being an opportunity to turn the offence of coercion and control, and consequently domestic abuse back on to the perpetrator.

15. Mothers’ Union would recommend that this amendment be adapted to reflect the fact that coercion and control should be considered a crime, regardless of the actual impact of the behaviour on the victim. Therefore we suggest that the wording of Section 1c be changed to:

"the behaviour has a serious effect on B, or has the potential of having a serious

effect o n B."

16. Whilst Mother’s Union welcomes the potential of fair and protective defences to those wrongly accused of committing the offence of coercion and control, we do have concerns surrounding the defence available in section 8 of NC9. This section stipulates that:

"a) in engaging in the behaviour in question, A believed that he or she was acting in B’s best interests, and b) the behaviour was in all circumstances reasonable."

17. We would urge caution in the creation of any defence in which a perpetrator of domestic abuse may be able to argue that they believed their behaviour to be in the best interest of the victim. Domestic abuse, and coercion and control often includes a mindset in which the perpetrator believes themselves to be justified in their behaviour towards a victim, regardless of the actual impact of their behaviour, or the legal standing of their behaviour.

18. There are also concerns around the use of false claims in order for a perpetrator to use this defence. Perpetrators of domestic abuse often bring in to question the mental health, capacity, or credibility of their victims, and can be extremely plausible, whilst a victim can appear to be less cohesive in their story, and less confident than the perpetrator [3] as a result of continued abuse. Therefore it could be easy for a perpetrator to defend their own behaviour by convincing authorities that they believed themselves to be acting in the best interests of the victim. An example of this could be a perpetrator who locks a victim within their own property, claiming that they believe the victim to be suicidal. If this is considered reasonable in the circumstances then it could be used as a defence, in a situation where there is no evidence other than the perpetrators word. Indeed there may be many circumstances where a victim is feeling suicidal as a direct result of the coercive and controlling situation they are in. Therefore they are prevented from gaining outside help, however the perpetrator could argue that they believed it to be in the best interest of the victim.

19. In order to ensure that these defences are not taken advantage of, Mothers’ Union would propose that a requirement for appropriate evidence for use in conjunction with these defences is introduced.

20. Mothers’ Union would recommend that the terms "domestic abuse and domestic violence" which are currently used interchangeably between various amendments and new clauses be standardised to avoid confusion. Mother’s Union would support the use of the phrase "domestic abuse" in referring to the pattern of coercion and control within intimate and family relationships, in order to move away from the misconception that abuse in intimate partner and family relationships must include some form of physical violence. We feel that this misconception has prevented those suffering from the serious and devastating effects of non-physical abuse dynamics characterised by coercion and control from recognising their situations appropriately, reporting and seeking help.

January 2015

[1] Partner exploitation and violence in teenage intimate relationships. Christine Barter, Melanie McCarry, David Berridge and Kathy Evans, October 2009.

[2] Mental health and domestic violence: Audit 1999 . Janet Bowstead 2000. Greenwich Multi-agency Domestic Violence Fo rum Mental Health Working Group .

[2] Domestic Violence and Mental Health. Louise Howard, Gene Feder, Roxanne Agnew-Davies (Eds.) 2013. Royal College of Psychiatrists.

[3] For more information on perpetrator behaviour see: Tackling Domestic Violence: Theories, Policies And Practice. Lynne Harne and Jill Radford 2008. Open University Press.

Prepared 22nd January 2015