Glenys Thornton considers whether the laws on domestic abuse need to be further strengthened
The reason for posing the question about the adequacy of the legal framework around domestic violence lies partly in some recent research. The ‘Victim’s Voice’ survey published by Paladin, Women’s Aid and Sara Charlton Charitable Foundation showed that 98% of victims were subjected to controlling, domineering and/or demeaning behaviours in their relationship.
A long list, these behaviour include isolation from friends, family and colleagues; excessive jealously; removal of all communications devices; food being withheld, and also use of the toilet; control over clothing and hair style; where they could work, if they were allowed to at all; stalking; financial control, including restricting the victim from using money or paying bills; and sleep deprivation. Plus a range of threats, relating to sexual abuse or rape, the harming children and/or pets, and physical harm, such as broken bones or strangulation.
The law still prosecutes the crime based on physical injury, despite that fact that coercion and psychological factors were written into the definition of domestic violence last year. And when asked if these behaviours were taken into account by the police, 88% said no.
Women’s Aid and Paladin feel that the laws used to prosecute domestic violence – including assault, burglary, property, breach of a restraining order, rape, kidnapping and murder – do not describe its essence. Patterns of power and control are missed, as is the fact that domestic violence is about fear, coercive control and continuing acts. The totality of the behaviour and the non-physical manifestations of power and control that define an abusive relationship do real harm to victims.
Too many women have already lost their lives and more will continue to do so if we fail to understand coercive control, and recognise the serious emotional harm caused to victims of domestic violence. It begs therefore, particular questions.
First, how many prosecutions and convictions have there been since coercive control and psychological abuse were included in the definition. Second, how many prosecutions and convictions have been made using the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 for causing alarm and distress in domestic violence cases where the victim and perpetrator are still in an ongoing relationship. Put another way, is the existing framework – and the support that needs to be wrapped around it – working effectively? And if not, should the law on domestic abuse need to be further strengthened?
Too many times the woman who is murdered or badly hurt had been begging the police to provide protection and deal with her abuser. Too often, the same victims are calling for protection, from the same perpetrators. And time and again, opportunities to intervene and protect families are missed.
Labour will establish an independent Commissioner for domestic and sexual violence to champion victims’ voices and drive improvements, starting with national standards for the delivery of services and training as recommended by ACPO.
Baroness Glenys Thornton is Shadow Equalities Minister in the House of Lords
Published 13th May 2014