It should come as no surprise to anyone that the issue of domestic violence is one of the most emotive topics in family law. After all, our home and the people we love are supposed to be refuges from the world – a place we feel safe and secure. But for some unfortunate people, this safe refuge is marred by intimidation, violence, and abuse. The damage can be deep and long lasting.
Over the years, society’s understanding of what constitutes domestic abuse has changed. While broken bones or bruises may be obvious, it is much more difficult to notice verbal violence. Words do not leave physical marks, but they have always been the most powerful weapon in any abuser’s arsenal.
In 2012, the government decided to take action. Behaviour such as coercion and intimidation were included under an expanded definition of domestic violence. Now, section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 has made it illegal to use ‘controlling or coercive’ behaviour in the context of ‘an intimate or family relationship’. Anyone who is found guilty of such offences faces the possibility of prison, a fine, or both.
It was clearly introduced with the best of intentions. Lawmakers wish to protect those vulnerable to controlling behaviour and punish those who bully and abuse them. But there is real potential for miscarriages of justice. Proving verbal abuse in a court of law will be very difficult, so cases may often come down to whose word is believed.
As a society, we find it much easier to accept women as vulnerable victims and men as aggressors, especially when it comes to domestic violence. So what happens when the aggressor is a woman? It is less common but it does happen. Do female abusers escape justice?
Much of the discussion on domestic violence is focused on the needs of women, but we should not forget the other side of this particular coin. Legal protections can be misused and apparent victims may not be as innocent as they appear.
Domestic abuse and violence should never be tolerated. It is not, nor has it ever been, a ‘zero sum’ game, where one gender has to lose in order for the other to ‘win’. Help for victims is essential regardless of their gender or background. However, I am not convinced that this legislation is the most effective route to justice in this complex and difficult area.
This article was first published by Solicitors Journal on 17/11/15, and is reproduced by kind permission.