Last week the papers were full of the news that the Serious Crime Act 2015 creates a new offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in intimate or familial relationships.
There was a very mixed reaction to the introduction of this new offence with commentators both in favour and against the further expansion of the law into this highly sensitive area.
Section 76 came into effect on 1st January 2016 and so we now have a new criminal offence on the statute book with a maximum prison sentence of five years and or a fine. The recently published guidance (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/482528/Controlling_or_coercive_behaviour_-_statutory_guidance.pdf) makes clear that this does not relate to a single event but must be part of a ‘purposeful pattern of behaviour’ and gives a list of behaviors that qualify, making it clear that the list is not exhaustive. The behaviors include:
• Isolating a person from friends and family
• Depriving them of their basic needs
• Monitoring their time
• Monitoring a person via on line communication tools or using spyware
• Taking control of aspects of their everyday life, such as where they can go, who they can see, what to wear and when they can sleep
• Depriving them of access to support services such as specialist support or medical services
• Repeatedly putting them down such as telling them they are worthless
• Enforcing rules or activates which humiliate, degrade or dehumanise the victim
• Forcing the victim to take part in criminal activity such as shoplifting, neglect or abuse of children to encourage self-blame and prevent disclosure to authorities
• Financial abuse including control of finances, such as only allowing someone a punitive allowance
• Threats to hurt or kill
• Threats to a child
• Threats to reveal or publish private information
• Criminal damage (such as destruction of household goods)
• Preventing a person from having access to transport or working
The behaviour must be of a repetitive and a continuous nature which has a serious effect on the victim. Perpetrator and victim must be in, or have been in; an intimate personal relationship and the perpetrator should know or should have known that their behavior’s would have a serious effect on the victim.
The statutory guidance gives advice for the police and other agencies about how to identify the offence and makes clear that victims may not even be aware that they are victims. It spells, out the manipulative nature of many perpetrators including the possibility of counter allegations being made.
The legislation remains gender neutral and both men and women can be victims, however it is expected that the majority of victims will be female because of continuing societal gender inequality and existing domestic violence crime stats ( http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/crime-stats/crime-statistics/focus-on-violent-crime-and-sexual-offences–2013-14/index.html). Interestingly much internet chat on the subject has focused on this aspect and many forums and comments have raised concerns along the lines of the new legislation victimising men! (http://www.marilynstowe.co.uk/2015/12/29/coercive-control-law-comes-into-force/#comments )
In response, Refuge CEO Sandra Horley raises concerns about how likely successful prosecutions will be, as ‘extreme jealousy and possessiveness, for example, can be dressed up to look like care and concern. Providing evidence of such behaviours to satisfy criminal standard is likely to be extremely difficult’ (http://www.refuge.org.uk/).
There are certainly going to be challenges ahead before this legislation results in significant prosecutions but, it is to be hoped that at the very least, the symbolic effect of creating a criminal offence should discourage such behaviour and encourage victims to recognise that they do not have to be victimised and controlled, and that help is available to assist them rebuild their lives and punish perpetrators.