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Campaigners Fear Domestic Abuse Law Will Exclude Women With Disabilities

January 29, 2015

A new law on domestic violence that criminalises “coercive control” could exclude women with disabilities, who are particularly vulnerable to such abuse, say campaigners.

The new legislation, part of the Serious Crime Bill, will make it illegal for someone to exercise psychological, emotional or financial control over their partner. The law has been welcomed by women’s groups, who have long called for coercive control, which they say is often a prelude to violence, to be a crime.

However, a fresh amendment introduced by the government earlier this month will allow a defence for carers who say they believe they are acting in their partners’ “best interests”. A court would then decide if such behaviour was reasonable.

Women’s Aid fear the changes could exclude women with disabilities, who they say are particularly vulnerable to crimes of domestic abuse.

The defence is unnecessary and too subjective, they say and are calling for safeguards to ensure perpetrators who are carers do not escape justice.

Polly Neate, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, said she wants the language “tightened up” ahead of the bill’s report stage to ensure a more objective test.

“We’re not totally happy with the defence,” said Neate. “It’s already been built into the legislation. A doctor or a mental health professional would have to say: ‘This behaviour is legitimate for the following reasons.’
Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: ‘It can’t be up to a man who is accused of coercive control to determine what is in a woman’s best interest.’ Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: ‘It can’t be up to a man who is accused of coercive control to determine what is in a woman’s best interest.’ Photograph: Sam Friedrich

“We are not saying there should be no defence. But it can’t be up to a man who is accused of coercive control to determine what is in a woman’s best interest.

Neate added: “We know disabled women are more vulnerable to domestic violence than non-disabled people. Very often people see a caring relationship when a man is looking after a woman. But women with disabilities are vulnerable people and there are those who will use that disability to further their control.”

A study funded by Woman’s Aid in 2008 found that disabled women are more likely to experience domestic abuse than their able-bodied peers.

Critics of the new offence, including Refuge, the domestic violence charity, say that controlling behaviour can be subtle and disguised to look like concern and that providing evidence to prove coercive control is likely to be difficult.

Refuge say the way to tackle domestic abuse is to implement existing laws, citing reports such as that by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary last year, which condemned police in England and Wales for treating domestic abuse as a “poor relation” to other police activity.

The new amendment further highlights the complexities of investigation and prosecution involved.

However, Neate said because coercive control is a “complex area” it is important to get it right.

“Agencies have to understand domestic violence and the power play that happens,” she said. “It’s not just an argument, or a woman saying ‘he’s controlling me’. It needs investigation: getting text messages, phone recordings, evidence from friends and family, testimony from doctors.”

When similar laws were introduced in the US, they led to a 50% rise in the number of women coming forward to report domestic abuse.

The amendment, introduced this month, adds a defence for carers of partners accused of the new crime of coercive control, subject to two tests; A, if they believe they were acting in their partner’s “best interest” and B, if their behaviour was “in all the circumstances reasonable”. A second amendment reduces the maximum sentence for the crime from 14 to five years.

Elfyn Llwyd, the Plaid Cymru MP who spearheaded a bill to criminalise coercive control, said he too was concerned by the changes, but hoped that early training of the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts would ensure the law was robust.

Llwyd said: “I’m still concerned about it but the Solicitor General has said it would not come in until the police and CPS are fully trained and that would happen within one or two years.

“I have discussed it, but I didn’t want to vote my amendment [to the Serious Crime Bill] down, just because that was included.”

He said it was important, where such a defence is used, that the courts recognised their duty to investigate whether it was reasonable in all circumstances.

During government consultation over the bill, 85% of respondents felt that the current law does not provide adequate protection to victims of abuse.

Non-violent coercive and controlling behaviour is also captured by stalking laws, but they do not apply to such behaviour in intimate relationships.

Crime statistics and research show that domestic violence is most commonly experienced by woman and perpetrated by men.

More than 1.2 million British women are estimated to have suffered domestic violence every year and two women a week are killed by their partners.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 29, 2015 6:34 am

    Reblogged this on Notes from the north.


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