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Coercive control two years on: How is the law being used?


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In the first part of a series on the crime JJ Hutber takes a look at how law enforcement and criminal justice have used the new powers so far.

Coercive control two years on: How is the law being used?

How do you prove psychological crimes committed, almost by definition, behind closed doors?

This weekend marks two years since coercive control legislation, which made non-physical abuse illegal, was introduced.

Sandra Horley, chief executive of national domestic violence charity Refuge, says the damage caused by controlling partners should not be underestimated.

“Emotional abuse can be just as devastating and often leads to physical violence over time.  At Refuge, our experience tells us that physical violence is very rarely a one off; in fact it usually becomes more frequent and severe over time.

“Domestic violence is about power and control. If you’re forced to change your behaviour because you are frightened of your partner's reaction it’s likely you’re being abused."

But between the enormous evidential challenges involved in investigating coercive control and stretched police resources, what has been accomplished for abuse victims?

Ministry of Justice figures, obtained by Police Oracle via the Freedom of Information Act, reveal success has varied across England and Wales.

Eleven forces saw no convictions in 2016, the MoJ says. They were: Wiltshire, Herts, Lincolnshire, Northumbria, Sussex, Bedfordshire, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, South Yorkshire and Durham.

On average forces secured 1.3 convictions and 3.6 court proceedings and less than 50 per cent of those found guilty of a coercive control offence were handed an immediate custodial sentence.

Although the Met Police helped launch court proceedings in 19 cases, only four alleged offenders were found guilty. 

Kent Police took 15 coercive control cases to court, and saw seven convictions, and Greater Manchester Police saw eight cases in court.

Detective Inspector Tracy Anstis said a “holistic” approach to abuse investigations has contributed to the force’s fruitful first year enforcing the new law.

“It’s very difficult [to prove]. It’s a very complex form of abuse to say the least.

“Victims may often not be aware of the legislation or even identify as abuse victims.”

Patience, building a victim’s trust and reading between the lines are key to building a strong case.

She pointed to the case of Christopher Moore, 30, of Coombe Valley Road, Dover, who was given a 23 year extended jail sentence for a raft of offences in February.

Moore bullied his victim and inflicted a ‘campaign of rape’ on her in which he threatened to reunite her with her dead parents.

He was called a ‘controlling, abusive and violent rapist’ and even while in prison, he managed to get his victim’s number and sent threats so she would withdraw her support for a prosecution.

The rapist, who was previously convicted of causing serious harm by shaking a four-week-old child, strangled, punched, smothered with a pillow and kicked his victim and threatened to kill her pet dog.

He was found guilty of nine rape charges and harassment and controlling behaviour.

Det Insp Anstis revealed that Moore’s victim did not initially disclose his controlling behaviour and it was many months before she opened up to the police.

“It’s about keeping an open mind and recognising where coercive control may have been a factor.”

She added that specialist training to help officers understand the law and how best to support victims has helped create awareness of coercive control.

Detective Superintendent Susie Harper of Kent Police added: “Understandably victims of domestic abuse can sometimes be reluctant to speak to us, which is why it is important we build confidence in them through a professional policing response in a timely and effective manner.

“We therefore have a force-wide strategy in place that aims to ensure officers are fully briefed on how to provide the best possible level of service, which has led to a greater number of victims opening up about the historic abuse they have suffered.

“The fact that more than 60 people have been charged and almost 30 sentenced to date shows that officers have a very good understanding of the new law and have played an important role in ensuring some very dangerous individuals are now behind bars.”

Detective Superintendent Denise Worth, from Greater Manchester Police, said she was pleased with the early work achieved by her force but “we can’t rest on our laurels and together with our colleagues at the Crown Prosecution Service we need to do more to support and protect victims of domestic abuse”.

She said: “Coercive and controlling behaviour can be the most damaging and risky form of abuse. Those that are made victim often describe how they lose a sense of themselves.

“We know from our own evidence that this type of abuse is less likely to be reported to us, which is why it’s so important that we effectively train our officers so that members of the public are instilled with enough confidence to know that if they report the crime it will be taken seriously.”

Domestic abuse accounts for a significant proportion of Crown Prosecution Service’s workload - a report released in October showed sex crimes and abuse made up almost 20 per cent of the organisation’s total cases.

A spokeswoman for CPS said the service was unable to break down its domestic abuse referrals into separate coercive control cases but overall 309 prosecutions have started since December 2015.

“Prosecutions for controlling or coercive behaviour are continuing to rise as police, prosecutors, other agencies, victims and members of the public gain more understanding about how to recognise offending and use the law accordingly,” she said.

For the CPS, the focus is on building “the strongest domestic abuse cases possible” rather than relying upon a complainant’s testimony alone.

While the legal framework is too young to draw any “firm conclusions about its long-term impact… we [CPS] will continue to monitor performance across the country whilst developing our approach with the police.”

She also pointed out prosecutions may have got off to a sluggish start as the legislation can’t be used retrospectively and officers must establish a pattern of control over a sustained period of time.

View On Police Oracle

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I have always been a bit mixed by this since it was brought in to law. I know this may be controversial however I want to make clear that I am not belittling genuine vulnerable victims here with what I may post, I know there are people out there who do suffer at the hands of DV perpetrators.

The issue I have with this offence is it has always struck me as a bit of a sound bite type measure which was brought in. The problem is with many occasions the perpetrator would have committed offences anyway so why can’t we look at dealing with them of the victim is on board?

This is usually what happens hence the low number of prosecutions for this specific offence.

From personal experience I have taken statements and dealt with allegations around this. Unfortunately it tends not to go further as there simply isn’t enough evidence if the suspect denies it. It was always going to be a difficult one. 

The other issue is with some of the allegations made it can be a very fine line between partners not liking friends, not being happy that the other stays out all night or does certain things with their life and the genuine controlling behaviour. It sometimes comes across as a bit broad.

I don’t know what the answer is, I know some people may have had positive results with this offence or have a different take on it.

Maybe as more cases are tested and we get more experience and case law from it it may well become clearer and easier to deal with for the genuine victims.

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I may be so bold as to agree with the above poster.

Domestic abuse support ABSOLUTELY needed to improve over that of 10 years ago.

However, we have a trend in this country to create victims where before there were none. We tell people that despite their feelings they are a victim. Repeat the mantra enough and people who didn't previously consider themselves a victim suddenly identify as victim of domestic abuse.

How many men are barred from having female friends? How many men finances are controlled and abused? How many men are told that they can't go out drinking? 

You see, I've experienced all that and I am not a victim of domestic abuse. I was party to unhealthy behaviours within a relationship I consented to because ultimately I wanted to stay with my ex.

This is wholly different from those men/woman who have abhorrently unreasonable behaviour inflicted upon them and they CANNOT leave the abuser.

However, rather than tackle the most vulnerable and serious cases the British, as with everything, went all knee-jerk reaction.

Controlling and coercive behaviour has been an element of domestic abuse for years...but this offence came in and was the buzz word. And as with most things in life the police realised pretty quickly that pursuing this as a focal point was leading to alot of NFA cases. Which I believe in many cases was the right decision ... the bar should be set necessarily high for this type of offence.

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Surely by its nature there should only be a small number of these cases. The legislation was brought in to cover those few cases where existing legislation, developed over centuries, was inadequate. In the vast majority of cases there will be assaults, theft, damage etc cases that can be used, along with family court protective measures.
I can't see any problem with only a handful of cases fitting the new Act as only a handful of cases couldn't be dealt with using existing laws.

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4 minutes ago, Reasonable Man said:

Surely by its nature there should only be a small number of these cases. The legislation was brought in to cover those few cases where existing legislation, developed over centuries, was inadequate. In the vast majority of cases there will be assaults, theft, damage etc cases that can be used, along with family court protective measures.
I can't see any problem with only a handful of cases fitting the new Act as only a handful of cases couldn't be dealt with using existing laws.

I think that is probably what was intended however I think Mersey is completely right. It becomes a buzz word and the novelty thing for the bosses which leads to completely unnecessary work to get to an NFA.

I have also encountered situations where Domestic Violence support services are telling people to make complaints against ex partners in relation to this where it is completely inappropriate. Because it’s DV related it leads to people being brought in and then NFA’d.

@MerseyLLB is spot on. I think the Police absolutely did need to improve with Domestic abuse as there were some outdated views and ideas on how to deal with the incidents and what actually constituted domestic abuse.

I do think though that we have gone way too far the wrong way now though. I don’t condone violence and abuse against partners or any other family members at all, but we are reaching a point where partners or family members can’t shout, argue or get upset with each other, or can’t  dislike their partner’s habits or who they see etc. 

The other problem is we absolutely don’t respect victim’s views which I think is ridiculous. I have had heated arguments and been pushed in the chest by my ex partner. Does that make me vulnerable, does that’s mean that they need to be arrested/VA’d despite me making it clear I am fine and don’t want it taken further? 

I find it a bit insulting actually that we can’t treat people as adults.

I am of course talking about the minor and trivial things here not the actual high risk victims and genuinely vulnerable.

We do knee jerk and over use words like vulnerable and we are increasingly becoming a hysterical country where no one can ever be upset, disagree or do anything which may offend someone.

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I have done a few and managed to get charges. Not sure if they will go anywhere. 

We get them crime recorded lots as well, wildly inaccurate recording that has been slapped on to just put something on. 

Generally a coercive job is a high risk domestic incident. Anything less and it's probably not coercive 

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SimonT spot on.

I know we are evidence gatherers not juries but I think we all know that when you take a DA statement and you start to feel sick in the stomach at what the victim is telling you, they are the high risk/control and coercive cases.

Most coppers I know in these cases behave impeccably. My most recent case of it i ignored the request to locate the suspect and blue lighted to collect the victim to take her to the police station as she had given a timescale of how long she could be out the house before the perpetrator would come looking and to avoid that she would return. All the warning signals for high risk were on the CAD but for some reason the direction was to attend to locate the suspect who may or may not have been home. Backed up by supervision, safeguarding put in place and suspect arrested overnight.

Do we need better training and processes for domestic abuse? Yes.

What we Don't need are rigid policies that throw the baby out with the bathwater and overreach the role of policing - we all know the victims who aren't ready to leave the perpetrator, they confide in officers that a minor offence has happened that we haven't a hope in hell of charging and we go against their wishes and cause a huge trauma by nicking the suspect. The next time the police attend for that 3rd party report the victim tells us nothing because they remember what happened last time. It's part of my argument against body worn video being used against the victims wishes in specific circumstances. I know we don't do it deliberately to harm the victims but it seems we are incapable of looking at the bigger picture sometimes.

 

Edited by MerseyLLB
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