News Focus: ‘verbal abuse is not readily recognised as criminal offence’

August 21, 2014

Dr Kate Cook

The Government has begun a consultation process on changing the law surrounding domestic abuse to establish whether we might move towards a specific offence covering this commonplace crime. Feminist groups have long emphasised the prevalence of verbal abuse and controlling behaviour as a part what used to be termed ‘domestic violence’. The consultation will explore whether these behaviours should also constitute part of a new criminal offence of ‘domestic abuse’.

In this short article Dr Kate Cook, senior lecturer in Law at Manchester Law School, Manchester Metropolitan University, considers the government proposals. Kate has worked with survivors of violence for more than 20 years and was part of the successful campaign to change the law on domestic homicide:

English law responds to crimes of domestic abuse with a patchwork of provisions. In criminal law the violence is categorised as an assault, a battery, a sexual offence or a homicide offence.  These are general offences which apply to all cases of violent crime, regardless of the relationship between the victim and offender.  This is a strength in that the prosecuting authorities do not have to worry about proving what the relationship between that parties was, in order for the law to apply.  However it is also a significant weakness when it comes to measuring the levels of domestic abuse and (arguably) to treating these crimes with an appropriate level of seriousness.

Statistics that aim to measure the proportion of crime that is domestic abuse (such as those cited below) rely on accurate recording by (busy) police officers. If the crime being charged was a specific domestic abuse crime, then this process would be simplified and the information available could be expected to improve.

Women’s Aid is the charity which runs many of the women’s refuges in England and Wales and has been calling for a specific crime of domestic abuse for some years. Another important aspect of this proposed change is that the new law could take better account of the range of behaviours which go to make up domestic abuse. Whereas current offences count instances of physical violence, it is known that domestic abusers tend to dominate their partners by a range of techniques, which are then reinforced by the hitting, kicking and sexual abuse.

A bullying partner will often demand to know where a woman goes, each day. He may well restrict her access to money, to family and to the outside world. Foul and diminishing name-calling is also a common component of domestic abuse, so that the physical violence is simply glue which holds together a whole series of behaviours, which ought not to take place within a relationship. All of this harassment, monitoring and verbal abuse is not readily recognised within the current range of criminal offences. Clearly though, a specific domestic abuse law, could begin to close this gap.

It is also apparent however that the problems with domestic abuse and the law are not wholly to do with the way that the law is written. Successive reviews have suggested that police forces around the country differ significantly in the rate at which they prosecute cases reported to them.  For example, a recent inspection report cites arrest rates which vary between 45% and 90% of cases (Source: HMIC). Where domestic homicide reviews have been conducted, following the death of a victim, they have also highlighted some serious weaknesses in local police and social service practice. A BBC article reviews “One Month’s Death Toll” considering deaths that took place in September of 2011 and the stories make tough reading.

One of the women killed was Sashana Roberts who was murdered by an ex-boyfriend. Her case serves as a reminder that simply ending a violent relationship is not always enough to stop a violent offender. The BBC report that Sashana had made a number of attempts to report her ex to the police, before he killed her.  Perhaps the creation of a new law on domestic abuse could be one factor that might help other women in similar circumstances.

A new law on domestic abuse will need to be carefully drafted to be able to reflect the complexity of the patterns of behaviour. The government’s own definition of domestic abuse illustrates what has to be covered: “any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality.” (Source: www.gov.uk).

It will be important that the emphasis is placed on evidence of violence, rather than evidence of relationship.  It will be interesting to see what submissions the government receives and, with the next election looming, whether any legislative reform can be created before 2015.

• According to Government published figures around 7% of women experienced domestic abuse in 2012/13 and domestic abuse made up about 8% of recorded crime in that year (source: HMIC). Women are particularly at risk of long-term violence that can culminate in serious injury or even death. Around 1 in 3 women have some experience of this abuse during their lifetimes and criminal justice statistics suggest that an average of two women per week are killed by a partner or former partner.

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