UK Just Criminalized Coercive, Controlling Behavior

pattern of blind justice on a pale pink background

ON DECEMBER 29TH, new legislation enacted in the U.K. under the Serious Crime Act established emotional and psychological abuse as criminal offenses. The law attaches penalties ranging from fines to five years in prison for what is deemed controlling, coercive behavior.

Prior to the ruling, there were no specific domestic abuse laws in the U.K.; victims would have to pursue regular assault charges, and only had six months to report incidents. Furthermore, the former law’s inclusion of “psychological injury” as a criminal action was undetailed, resulting in very few successful prosecutions. Under the new law, victims are given two years to report instances of abuse, whether physical or psychological, and the legislation includes a more detailed description of what constitutes psychologically or emotionally injurious behavior.

The Home Office’s Statutory Guidance Framework defines controlling behavior as actions “designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent,” and coercive behaviors as “abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.” Examples include:

  • Controlling finances
  • Isolating a person from family/friends
  • Monitoring a person’s social media activity
  • Controlling daily activities, such as where a person can go, when she sleeps or what she wears
  • Threatening to harm
  • Enforcing activities that humiliate
  • Threats involving a child
  • Threats to reveal private information
  • Preventing a person from working or accessing transportation

In order to be considered emotional or psychological abuse, there must be a pattern of such behavior. A victim must have feared violence on at least two occasions or suffered serious distress in relation to the behavior. The perpetrator must be deemed capable of knowing that the behavior is controlling or coercive. Also, the two people involved must be in an intimate relationship, family members living together, or people who were once in an intimate relationship. (If such a connection does not exist, stalking or harassment charges may be pursued instead.)

The new domestic abuse legislation was actually approved earlier in 2015, but its implementation was held off until the end of the year so that police officers could be trained to identify and gather evidence of coercive, controlling behavior while responding to domestic calls. They have been trained to gather any and all evidence of possible coercion, and the evidence is expected to go beyond the complainant’s accusation. Video tape of the scene, assessment of signs of struggle (bruises, broken furniture, etc.), and DNA evidence — if available — may all help in cases where physical violence was threatened or performed; other steps include, when relevant, analyzing financial records and communications data such as phone, email, and social media activity, interviewing neighbors/witnesses, and checking the accused’s background for other allegations or convictions.

Aside from collecting evidence, one of the most important parts of this training for police is learning what signs to look for and what questions to ask. Training aims to foster the understanding among police officers and others in the criminal justice system that the abused, usually women, can’t simply leave the relationship, and that they may not know themselves that they are being abused.

Perhaps the most outspoken critic of the new legislation is U.K. domestic abuse charity Refuge. Shortly after the legislation was proposed in 2014, Refuge released a response to the Home Office detailing its concerns. The group argues that the U.K. needs to beef up its enforcement of previously-existing laws rather than adding yet another one. The group fears that a difficult-to-enforce law will only lead to domestic violence in general being taken less seriously. Sandra Horley, Chief Executive of Refuge, said: “The police don’t even arrest when there is evidence of serious physical violence, so how are police and juries ever going to understand complex concepts like coercive control?”

However, another domestic violence charity, Women’s Aid, has voiced its support for the new legislation. Chief Executive Polly Neate said: “We welcome the home secretary’s announcement that the government will criminalize the patterns of coercive, controlling and psychologically abusive behavior which lie at the heart of the abuse so many women experience. We hope this new law will lead to a real culture change, so that every woman experiencing control can get the support she needs to break free safely.” By drawing attention to the key role psychological and emotional tactics play in many abusive relationships, the law may lead to a broader understanding, both in the criminal justice system and the public at large, of the realities many women face.

In the U.S., there is no federal law categorizing psychological and emotional abuse as forms of domestic violence, so the amount of legal recourse a woman has depends on the state in which she lives.