The criminal offence of controlling and coercive behaviour: avoiding the potential pitfalls in family proceedings
Whilst highly sensible and necessary advice given the on-going coronavirus crisis, the government’s latest ‘social distancing’ rules, which are rapidly moving towards mass self-isolation, are at odds with its own figures illustrating just how prevalent the risk of domestic violence is. We know that reports of domestic violence cases surge during the summer and Christmas holiday periods, during which time abusers spend more time with their families. There is a serious risk that under self-isolation, perpetrators of abuse will be able to restrict their partner’s freedom and threaten their and their children’s safety in the same way and on the same scale. To compound the problem, this is all happening at a time when support services are struggling to function due to the same government guidelines and rules on top of an existing funding crisis.
Many abusers use isolation as a way of controlling their partner. Isolation keeps the suspicions of others at bay, reduces the opportunities for someone to seek help, and may also increase cases of physical violence where there is less chance of another person noticing bruises or other injuries. Further, domestic abuse does not always leave a physical mark. Controlling and coercive behaviour is an act or pattern of acts that can include threats, intimidation or other abuse designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday behaviour. Further information can be found in our previous blogs here and here.
It is deeply concerning that at the very core of controlling and coercive behaviour and other forms of domestic abuse is the theme of isolation; exactly what the government is encouraging huge swathes of people to introduce into their day to day lives in order to combat the serious threat COVID-19 poses. Whilst self-isolation is an important weapon in the fight against coronavirus, it may shut down routes to support and safety, causing further barriers to finding time away from the perpetrator in order to seek help.
Reports from China show a huge surge in cases of domestic violence during the outbreak of COVID-19 (cases have almost doubled), particularly where women are living in locked down areas, and offer a warning of the situation vulnerable women here will soon be facing. The Twitter hashtag #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic has been trending in China and social media can really help, not only by making women feel they are not alone in these situations but also by spreading awareness and sharing online resources, useful helplines and links.
However, this sort of awareness and support only goes so far in combatting the problem. Government action is required to ensure that those who experience or have experienced domestic abuse get the protection and support required, even when self-isolating. The existing high levels of domestic abuse cases in the UK must be acknowledged, and steps must be taken to provide effective support to those for whom the home is not a place of safety, but one of danger.
There is already a crisis in this country when it comes to the safety of vulnerable people, and the government needs to provide a substantial and strong response so that no-one is left isolated in a dangerous home.
Legal options available when seeking protection from an abuser include applying for a non-molestation order or an occupation order. To apply for either a non-molestation order or an occupation order, the relevant court form must be completed showing why such an order is required, supported by a witness statement setting out the facts of the situation.
Molestation is defined not only as physical violence, but can also encapsulate other behaviour such as intimidation, making threats and harassment. A non-molestation order is aimed at preventing this type of behaviour alongside the prevention of general communication (including phone calls and texts but also direct contact). A non-molestation order can include very specific provisions based on the situation, for example prohibiting all telephone communication where there has been a pattern of harassment via this means. Breach of a non-molestation order is now a criminal offence (our criminal team have previously blogged about this point here).
An occupation order provides for who can live in the family home (or certain parts of it) and can also extend to who can enter the surrounding area if necessary. Where someone is concerned that pre-warning the alleged abuser of their intention to apply for an occupation order will risk their or their child’s safety, it is possible to make an application for an occupation order without prior warning to the alleged abuser.
Whilst legal aid is only available in very limited cases, it is available for victims of domestic violence.
Although we do not carry out legal aid work at Kingsley Napley, we can provide you with details of family lawyers who do and more information can also be found at www.gov.uk/legal-aid. You can also check the Resolution website for lawyers offering legal aid in your area. You are not obliged to use a legal aid lawyer, but the provision for domestic violence victims is vital as some individuals are simply unable to afford to privately fund their cases.
If you are, or someone you know is, at immediate risk, you should call 999 and the police will assist. If you are unable to talk, call 999 and then press 55 which will transfer your call to the relevant police force without you having to speak.
There are a number of helplines and organisations that may be able to help you. For example:
If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this blog, please contact a member of our family team. If you are, or someone you know is, at immediate risk, you should call 999 and the police will assist. If you are unable to talk, call 999 and then press 55 which will transfer your call to the relevant police force without you having to speak.
Stacey Nevin a Senior Associate in Kingsley Napley’s family and divorce team. She advises UK and international clients on matters involving all aspects of family law, in particular complex financial issues (including trust arrangements); cross-border disputes; private children cases; and nuptial agreements.
Lucy Bluck is a trainee solicitor at Kingsley Napley. She is currently in her second seat in the family and divorce team, where she assists with cases involving finance and children proceedings.
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