Fifth anniversary of coercive control legislation
Today marks the five-year anniversary of landmark legislation which established coercive and controlling behaviour as a criminal offence in the Serious Crime Act 2015 of England and Wales.
Women’s Aid alongside other organisations campaigned for this landmark legislation. Coercive control is central to women’s experiences of domestic abuse, creating invisible chains and a sense of fear that pervades all elements of a survivor’s life. The criminal offence of coercive and controlling behaviour was a major step forward in how the justice system responds to the reality of survivors’ experiences.
Coercive control is a pattern of intimidation, degradation, isolation and control with the use or threat of physical or sexual violence. Often the perpetrator’s aim is total control over their partner, ex-partner or family member. Coercive control can include: psychological and/or emotional abuse, physical or sexual abuse, financial or economic abuse, harassment and stalking, online or digital abuse.
Prosecution data shows that, in an overwhelming majority of cases, coercive control is perpetrated by men against women; 97% of defendants in the year ending December 2019 were male (where the sex was known). Women who face other forms of inequality also experience specific forms of control – for example, when perpetrators use a woman’s immigration status or disability as a tool for control and isolation.
During COVID-19, Women’s Aid’s research has found that perpetrators have used the pandemic as a tool for enacting coercive and controlling behaviour. According to its report, A Perfect Storm (2020), 67% of women who were currently experiencing abuse told Women’s Aid that Covid-19 had been used as part of the abuse. Out of 46 survivors responding, over three-quarters (76.1%, 35 out of 46) reported having to spend more time with their abuser and 71.7% (33 out of 46) reported that their abuser had more control over their life.
Women’s Aid latest campaign film by ENGINE shows the reality of many survivors. The film Respite illustrates that women in abusive relationships have fewer opportunities to spend time away from their partners during COVID lockdowns.
Despite coercive and controlling behaviour being criminalised, the rate of prosecutions is low and professional understanding is not consistent. In the year ending December 2019 in England and Wales, there were 584 defendants prosecuted, and 293 offenders convicted of, and sentenced for, controlling or coercive behaviour (ONS 2020). According to Women’s Aid’s report Survival and Beyond (2018), only one-sixth of the women residents in responding refuge services in England saw criminal sanctions or a criminal case against the perpetrator(s) of the abuse.
The national charity is calling for ongoing training on domestic abuse and coercive control by specialist organisations, to transform responses to survivors. Women’s Aid works with the College of Policing and other organisations to deliver the Domestic Abuse Matters training programme for police forces. This training programme works holistically to offer whole-force, sustainable change to improve the police response given to survivors of domestic abuse.
Acting chief executive of Women’s Aid, Nicki Norman, said
“As a survivor-led organisation, we hear from survivors that coercive control is at the heart of almost all domestic abuse. Women tell us how they are living in terror of their partners. Yet it is clear from the latest criminal justice statistics that only a tiny proportion of survivors who experience coercive control are seeing justice. It remains vital that all judges, prosecutors and police officers truly understand coercive control and the damaging and often lifelong impact it has on survivors and their children. As the domestic abuse bill enters the House of Lords on 5 January, we are calling for this legislation to reflect survivors’ lived experiences of coercive control. We want to see coercive and controlling behaviour named as a form of harm to children, and the crime extended after separation – because for many women and children the abuse does not end when the relationship does. It is also vital that we learn the lessons of the coercive control legislation before the bill finally becomes law in 2021. Funding, training and awareness must accompany legislation for it to truly change responses to survivors and their children.”