Domestic abuse: Everything you need to know about the new psychological abuse law

What was it before, how to identify 'controlling, coercive' behaviour, and who can help

A new law targeting people who psychologically and emotionally abuse their partners, spouses, or family members has come into force under the Serious Crime Bill.

The legislation will see psychological abusers facing up to five years in jail or a hefty fine, or both, if found guilty.

Here’s everything you need to know about the law:

What was it before?

Prior to the change, there was no specific offence of domestic abuse, let alone any law criminalising “controlling, coercive” behaviour, according to The Police Foundation.

Domestic abuse cases are frequently prosecuted as common assault, although depending on the nature of the offence, they can also be prosecuted as criminal damage, threats to kill, harassment, threatening behaviour, or sexual assault.

However, victims would have had to report the abuse within six months of it occurring, which many do not have the courage to do.

Under new legislation, victims now have up to two years to report the crime.

What is “controlling, coercive” behaviour?

The Home Office’s Statutory Guidance Framework on “controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship” includes:

  • Isolating a person from their friends and family
  • Controlling what they do, where they go, who they can see, what they wear and when they sleep
  • Repeatedly putting them down, such as telling them they are worthless
  • Enforcing rules and activity which humiliate, degrade or dehumanise the victim
  • Financial abuse
  • Threats to reveal or publish private information

When does the offence apply?

The offence only applies if the victim suffers such treatment “repeatedly or continuously”, on an ongoing basis.

Although courts will look for evidence of a behavioural pattern rather than isolated incidents, the Home Office states each case “must be considered on an individual basis” and “there is no set number of incidents in which controlling or coercive behaviour has been displayed which must be proved”.

It must also have had a “serious effect” on the victim. It is explicitly stated that the victim must either “fear that violence will be used against them on at least two occasions” or “been caused serious alarm or distress” enough to disrupt their day-to-day activities.

The behaviour must also be calculated. According to the Home Office, it must be such that the “perpetrator knows or ‘ought to know’ that it will have a serious effect on the victim”.

Lastly, both victim and abuser have to be “personally connected when the incidents took place”, meaning they would have had to be in, or are in, an intimate relationship, or were family members living together.

What are people saying about it?

There have been mixed reactions towards the new law. Domestic abuse charity Women's Aid welcomes the change, calling it a "landmark moment in the UK's approach to domestic abuse".

They said in a statement: "Coercive control is at the heart of domestic abuse... Women's Aid and other organisations campaigned to have this recognised in law, and we are thrilled that this has now happened.

Women's Aid also launched a "coercive control kit" to coincide with the new legislation, which aims to help parents of young adults and teenagers recognise the signs of such abuse.

However, domestic abuse charity Refuge has opposed the law, saying the solution does not lie in enforcing more laws.

Chief executive of Refuge, Sandra Horley, said: "The police don't even arrest when there is evidence of serious physical violence, so how are police and juries ever going to understand complex concepts like coercive control?

"We need to get back to basics. The police response to domestic violence is lamentable – forces across the country are failing in their most basic of policing duties towards victims of domestic violence."

What are the police doing about it?

The amendment to the Serious Crime Bill was actually drawn up earlier this year, but only enforced now that training and guidelines for police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) have been put in place.

The College for Policing issued new guidance for police officers on how to prosecute without relying on the victim for evidence, which is backed by Women's Aid and SafeLives.

College of Policing lead for crime and criminal justice, David Tucker, said: “To tackle a domestic abuse case successfully, police need to see the big picture behind an individual incident. This depends on officers being properly trained and having access to information about both the victim and the perpetrator; effective and accurate risk management, partnership working and information sharing.

"The failure for any of these links can be the difference between life and death for a victim. Our research indicated the need for a culture change within policing attitudes towards domestic abuse.

"Sometimes police cannot understand why a victim would stay in an abusive relationship. There are dozens of reasons why victims feel unable to leave or support prosecution.

"It is the responsibility of the perpetrator to stop the abuse and the responsibility of the police to being the perpetrator to justice – the victim is not responsible for either.”

Visit Women's Aid, Refuge and SafeLives for more information on how to get help.