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Why we must close gaps in the law around domestic violence

Why we must close gaps in the law around domestic violence

There is currently a loophole in criminal law which means that women and children living in fear of violent partners cannot be adequately protected. A perpetrator of domestic violence can currently only be prosecuted for an incident of a specific crime like assault, kidnap, or rape. Yet the core of domestic violence, as recognised by the Home Office and the specialist organisations which support women experiencing it, is a pattern of coercive, controlling behaviour and ongoing psychological abuse. Any physical violence in a relationship will be only one method of control - there may be many other forms of abusive behaviour happening at the same time.

This coercive and controlling behaviour is a form of intimate terrorism, which reduces a woman’s life and options significantly. The psychological abuse and manipulation leaves women in absolute fear of taking any decision lest she receive a violent or humiliating response. Many women have been made to feel so incompetent, so weak, so damaging, so to blame for the abuse being done to them that they are unable to leave: many also know that leaving would pose even greater risks than staying, as perpetrators are most dangerous in the time immediately after leaving. In most cases, the criminal justice system cannot intervene to stop the control and manipulation because these behaviours are not criminal, and frontline officers do not understand that they are happening, let alone that they’re wrong.

We have been campaigning alongside Paladin and the Sara Charlton Charitable Foundation for this gap to be closed: for patterns of abuse, coercive and controlling behaviour, and psychological abuse to be criminalised. The Domestic Violence Law Reform Campaign has demonstrated overwhelming support for such a change from both professionals working with survivors and survivors themselves.

Domestic violence, and violence against women and girls more generally, now look set to be an important issue for the upcoming election. Both Labour and the Conservatives have previously intimated that they will take more action on domestic violence, and the past few days have seen more concrete proposals outlined. On Friday, the Prime Minister stated that the Government will consider amending the criminal law to improve responses to domestic violence. And on Monday Yvette Cooper announced Labour’s plans to introduce new criminal law to prevent perpetrators from being able to escape prosecution for abuse. The political will to protect survivors seems to be in place: we are hopeful that we will soon see new legislation to cover the non-physical forms of abuse which are central to domestic violence.

We are confident that such a change in the law will immediately grant greater protection and options to women trying to flee violence. But our ultimate aim is larger: we hope that recognising coercive control and psychological abuse in in will create a culture shift, and build awareness across society that domestic violence is a pattern of control, not an occasional slap, and that no form of abuse is acceptable. Only when everyone from frontline police officers, to teachers, neighbours, friends, and colleagues understands the nature of domestic violence will the stigma fall on the perpetrator and not the victim for not leaving. We hope that once we reach this level of understanding in society, that we will also see specialist Women's Aid refuge services finally receive the long-term funding they need to be able to help every survivor of domestic violence.