The controlling behaviour of those who abuse their partners can take many forms – the courts and wider society should take note
A new domestic violence law comes into effect on 29 December, which recognises for the first time that abuse is a complex and sustained pattern of behaviour intended to create fear. The coercive control offence, which carries a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment and a fine, can be invoked if a victim suffers serious alarm or distress that impacts on their day-to-day activities, or if they fear violence will be used on at least two occasions.
The law change comes in the same month as a report by the police inspectorate which found that the number of reported crimes associated with domestic abuse increased by 31% in 18 months. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) warned that specialist crime units could be overwhelmed – and called for an end to the postcode lottery where protection and support for victims vary widely across the country. It also noted inconsistent levels of awareness concerning coercive or controlling behaviour.
It’s only right that HMIC is pushing the police to improve, and that criminal procedures are strengthened. But there is no equivalent action in the civil court system. The family court system – which deals with matters of finance, child access and residence in cases where partners have been domestically abused – needs to ensure a rigorous and consistent approach. And at present the family court experience can prove devastating for vulnerable women and children.
There’s a new domestic abuse crime – but how will people stop it?
With coercive control to become a criminal offence, a totally new way for public professionals to interact with victims and collect evidence is needed.
Government guidance concerning the new domestic violence offence says: “Perpetrators can be particularly adept at manipulating professionals, agencies and systems, and may use a range of tactics in relation to this offence.” So where is the push for courts to train legal professionals to help them spot the psychological games and deceptions practised by abusive men? And where are the checks and balances to ensure that rulings reflect an understanding that domestic violence is a sustained pattern of behaviour which has far-reaching consequences?
In my experience, and that of women I know who have been through the family court system, the approach of judges and magistrates seems random. There’s a sense that anything can happen in these private hearings. “It depends which judge you get on the day,” is a common refrain.
We women can be forced into accepting mediation sessions with men who frighten us. We can be bullied into shared care arrangements that do not meet the needs of our children, and have been kept impoverished because our cunning ex-partners hide their finances from the courts – safe in the knowledge that they will never be punished for their deceit. Often the court process is used as an additional threat by perpetrators, and abuse can continue when legal professionals are hoodwinked into becoming pawns in a game aimed at destroying our lives.
Thanks to my ex, and the family court which failed to see through his lies, I am homeless with our young child this Christmas. In my latest court expedition, my ex invented the idea that I was obstructing the sale of our marital home. And previously I was cornered into accepting a child arrangement order that exposes our child to his anger outbursts and controlling behaviour for large periods of time. A sweet-talking man in a suit who enlists the most successful barrister in town holds remarkable sway, I’ve learned.
A friend of mine was dragged in and out of court for 10 years by her abusive ex, who successfully claimed that he was poverty stricken, after putting his business and assets in the names of other family members. He also charmed a Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service officer, who wrote a report in his favour, suggesting that my friend had mental health problems.
Another friend was accused of child negligence when her violent ex-husband produced photographs to court of her looking worse for wear on a rare night out. Despite his habit of hitting their child, he gained a 50-50 shared care arrangement on the basis that she regularly got drunk.
There are further reports of women who are so frightened by their experience of the family court that they return to live with violent partners.
The potential for dodgy court rulings was increased by the removal of legal aid for most family law cases in April 2013. Legal aid is now only offered to those domestic victims who meet particular criteria, such as going to a refuge or involving the police. Some of us simply don’t possess the required forms of evidence.
Abusive men have many years of experience conning and convincing not only their victims, but friends, family, teachers, childcare workers and health professionals. For such an abusive person, the family court offers a fairground of possibilities. Surely this new law should signal to the courts and the rest of society that we need to pay attention to the many ways in which domestic violence operates.
- Kate Bailey is not the author’s real name
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