Home Secretary Theresa May will announce the government’s plans to criminalise domestic abuse this week, according to reports.
The new offense would add “coercive control” to the definition of abuse. This means that if someone tries to manipulate their partner by threatening them, or putting restrictions on their personal or financial freedom, they could be sent to prison.
This seems like a common sense solution to a terrible problem. However, there are all kinds of potential problems that the government has either not thought of or is simply ignoring.
For a start, the focus is slanted. Almost all of the conversation around this issue has been focused on male perpetrators and female victims. While no one is denying that male-on-female violence is a major problem, it ignores the fact that a lot of men suffer from domestic abuse too. Will they be able to prosecute abusive partners?
Even if someone is charged with using coercive control as a form of abuse against their partner, there is another hurdle: proof. If all of the abuse happens behind closed doors, obtaining proof of such abuse could be very difficult. Especially as psychological abuse does not leave physical bruises.
Lastly, as a divorce lawyer I could not help but consider the effect the offense would have on people looking to get out of an abusive marriage. Could an unchallenged divorce lead to criminal prosecution? I brought this up back when Theresa May launched a consultation on domestic abuse back in August.
I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that people going through a divorce often want to get it over with as quickly as possible. The sooner the divorce is finalised, the sooner both parties can move on with their lives.
When “unreasonable behaviour” is cited for a divorce, the petitioning spouse will list what their partner has done which led them to seek the end of their marriage. In some cases this includes allegations of coercive control. More often than not, these allegations will go unchallenged even if the respondent vehemently denies them. This is because doing so will be costly and time-consuming.
The family courts are already struggling to cope with the rise of unrepresented litigants, despite the government’s efforts to steer people towards mediation. How would this situation be helped by creating an incentive to have every allegation in divorce proceedings ruled on by a judge?