Home Secretary Theresa May has today launched a consultation to look at strengthening the law by creating a new offence of domestic abuse. This would aim to make it clear that coercive and controlling behaviour in relationships is criminal. A new law could potentially help protect victims of abuse whose partners cause terrible psychological harm by threatening them with violence, cutting them off from friends and family or refusing them access to money in order to limit their freedom.
The consultation asks whether the law needs to be strengthened in order to provide better protection to victims of domestic abuse by clarifying the fact that domestic abuse can be emotional and psychological as well as physical. The government already defines domestic abuse as including non-violent behaviour, such as humiliation, intimidation or acts that are used to harm, punish or frighten the victim.
Home Secretary Theresa May said: "Domestic abuse is a brutal reality for thousands of victims up and down the UK whose lives are shattered by the people closest to them. In the most tragic cases, it can lead to murder. That is why tackling domestic abuse is one of this government's top priorities. The government is clear that abuse is not just physical. Victims who are subjected to a living hell by their partners must have the confidence to come forward. Meanwhile, I want perpetrators to be in no doubt that their cruel and controlling behaviour is criminal. We will look at the results of this consultation carefully in order to continue providing the best possible protection and support for victims of domestic abuse."
Under existing law, non-violent coercive and controlling behaviour is captured by the legislation that covers stalking and harassment. However, this does not explicitly apply to intimate relationships, and the consultation asks whether the law needs to be strengthened to remove any possible ambiguity.
Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women's Aid, said: "We welcome the Home Office's proposal to consult on the criminalisation of coercive control and psychological abuse. This is a vital step forward for victims of domestic violence. Two women a week are killed by domestic violence, and in our experience of working with survivors, coercive controlling behaviour is at the heart of the most dangerous abuse."
"This move demonstrates a strong commitment from the Home Office to listening to victims of abuse in framing the law that serves them. We are very proud to have been part of that process already, through the Domestic Violence Law Reform Campaign. We look forward to working closely with the Home Office, the police, and the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure this change gives victims greater confidence to speak out sooner, and perpetrators of domestic violence are identified and dealt with more swiftly and effectively."
The consultation is part of ongoing work by the government to support victims of domestic abuse. It complements major work being undertaken following the report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) on the police response to domestic abuse commissioned by the Home Secretary last year. The Home Secretary chairs a national oversight group to lead implementation of HMIC's recommendations and make significant and lasting improvements to how the police deal with domestic abuse.
The government has also introduced the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme - popularly known as Clare's Law - enabling the police to disclose information about previous violent offending by a partner and empowering people to make informed decisions about their relationships. The introduction earlier this year of Domestic Violence Protection Orders means that perpetrators of domestic abuse can be prevented from returning to the home for up to 28 days, giving the victim space to consider his or her options.
Responding to the news from the Home Office on the consultation, Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper commented: "We've called for the law on domestic violence to be strengthened for some time and have pledged new legislation in the first Queen's speech of a Labour Government. The criminal justice system needs to recognise the damage done by repeated psychological abuse and coercive control which is too often overlooked - the Government's agreement to this consultation is a welcome tribute to those who have campaigned hard for change. But Theresa May just isn't doing enough to reverse the backwards slide in action against domestic violence or support for victims on her watch."
Continuing Ms Cooper said: "Under this Government, refuges across the country are cutting services and many are threatened with closure. Prosecutions and convictions as a proportion of recorded domestic crime are falling. And over the last four years over 10,000 perpetrators of domestic violence have been handed only community resolutions, with many simply being asked to apologise to their victim. Theresa May has repeatedly dragged her feet on action to tackle domestic abuse, and the Government is still opposing vital action to prevent domestic abuse in future. That is why Labour's Women's Safety Commission is drawing up detailed and stronger reforms."
Concluding Yvette Cooper commented: "Labour is committed to introducing national standards for police, prosecution and support services and a Commissioner for Domestic and Sexual Violence who will sit at the heart of Government and champion the needs of victims. And we are committed to compulsory sex & relationship education in all schools so our young people are taught that there is no place for violence of any kind in relationships. We need stronger legislation, but we also need stronger action in the criminal justice system and stronger prevention too. Domestic violence is one of the most prevalent and dangerous crimes in the country - it should be taken much more seriously by the Government, the criminal justice system and support services too."