Domestic violence is one of the most emotive topics in family law, and unsurprisingly so. Our homes and closest relationships are refuges from the world, places of rest and safety. If these are escapes are shattered by intimidation or violence, whether verbal or physical, the damage can be deep.
Over recent years, our understanding of domestic violence has broadened. Bruises and broken bones have always been obvious, verbal violence less so, although the latter always been the biggest weapon in the armoury of every domestic abuser. Back in 2012, the government broadened the definition of domestic violence to include coercion and intimidation, and three years on, it is now on the verge of making such behaviour illegal.
It is a controversial move. It is clear that proponents of section 76 for the most part have good intentions: they are motivated by a noble desire to protect the vulnerable from bullying and abuse. Meanwhile, critics – myself amongst them – point to the difficulties inherent in enforcing such a measure and establishing the truth amongst a morass of ‘he said, she said’ counterclaims. I set out my views in detail here and the redoubtable John Bolch also expressed doubts in his column yesterday. For John, promising to eliminate domestic violence is more about scoring political points than setting achievable goals.
John’s article provoked a long and interesting response from a commentator called ‘Min’. I urge you to read it for yourself but essentially he or she argued that ‘preconceptions must be set aside and each case regarded dispassionately in order to protect both victims and any children involved. No argument from me there!
Min also took issue with my claim in a recent BBC interview that much depends on who you believe in each particular case, and that victims always have the option of leaving. Attempting to leave an abusive relationship places victims at special risk of harm, Min insists, because abusers are threatened by their imminent loss of control.
He or she emphasises the difficulties faced by many victims in such circumstances : “What if the victim is terrified, has no money, nowhere to go, feels worthless? To leave a domestically violent relationship, a safety plan needs to be put into effect.”
For Min, saying it is better to leave implies that I am blaming the victims of abusive relationship. He or she goes on to debate my suggestion that claims of coercive could be used by vengeful wives as social weapons against their husbands. Min describes the typical escalating patterns of coercive control and the dynamics of domestic abuse over the course of a relationship. It is vivid and powerful passage.
Nevertheless, as I explained in my response to Min, I still believe that the potential for miscarriages of justice in the application of Section 76 cannot and should not be overlooked in an understandable desire to protect the victim, a figure we almost always envision as the woman. As a society we are much comfortable seeing women as vulnerable victims than aggressors. Precisely the opposite applies to men – but the fact remains that some women are aggressive and some men are victims. They may be in the minority but these people should not be ignored and brushed aside as an inconvenient exceptions.
Min is of course quite right to point out how difficult it can be to leave an abusive relationship. But whatever the practical obstacles in your way, you can leave. You don’t have to stay and suffer or snap and lose control. As I wrote in my response:
“There is help available and I think it would be wrong to simply say women are trapped in relationships and leave it at that. They need to hear it can end.”
So much of the discourse and debate about domestic violence is focused on the needs of women and I think it is important to balance that by pointing to the other side of the coin and saying that the protections available can be misused and that apparent victims may not be as innocent as they appear. To make such points is not to blame either gender and it certainly does not mean that genuine bullying and abuse should be tolerated. Domestic violence is not and never has been a ‘zero sum’ game, in which for one gender to ‘win’, the other has to lose. Let’s recognise and help everyone in need, regardless of gender or background.