With the UK government set to look afresh at calls to criminalise ‘coercive control’ by partners, Karen McVeigh talks to a victim and those hoping to help more like her come forward
When Abbie Horne met her husband, she was a confident professional, earning more than £70,000 a year, with a company sports car. Well-travelled and university-educated, the 38-year-old had her own house, a close circle of friends and a supportive family.
Her new husband, a police officer turned investor, persuaded her to quit her job to concentrate on building a family, and took over selling her house to buy a bigger one. By the time baby No 2 arrived, Horne seemed to have it all: a gorgeous £600,000 house, on acres of land in the east Midlands, with the family she had longed for, and a man she could rely on who was happy to make the financial decisions.
Instead, Horne was isolated from her family and friends and subjected to over a decade of emotional and financial abuse by a man who spun complex lies to ensure she remained financially dependent on him. He paid all the bills, did the food shopping, thus controlling what the family ate, and aside from £120-a-month child benefit, which she used to buy the children’s clothes, Horne had virtually no access to money.
The illusion was finally shattered when she learned the depths of his deceit: he had never put her name on the title deeds on their home, bought with the £100,000 proceeds of her house. When she filed for divorce soon afterwards, he stopped paying the bills and transferred them into her name, leaving her to run up debts she cannot pay. He also turned violent.
Experts in domestic violence have for years recognised the controlling behaviour of Horne’s husband as abuse and in March 2012, the Home Office widened its definition of domestic violence to include what it describes as “coercive control”, either financial, psychological, physical, sexual or emotional.
Despite the change, such behaviour between intimate partners is not yet illegal. But that could all change if an amendment to the serious crime bill goes ahead. The amendment – based on a bill spearheaded by Harry Fletcher, criminal justice expert and founder of the Digital-Trust charity which campaigns against online abuse, and the Plaid Cymru MP and anti-stalking campaigner Elfyn Llwyd – will be tabled by crossbench peers in the House of Lords this month.
It will coincide with the end of an eight-week Home Office consultation period on whether coercive control should be criminalised. Women’s Aid, the national anti-abuse charity, says criminalising the behaviour would increase the number of victims coming forward and prosecution rates.
Currently, only 6.5% of reported domestic violence incidents lead to a conviction.
The government is keen to move forward: this month’s consultation follows a Home Office-commissioned review by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in March which found significant failings in the police response to victims of domestic abuse, including poor victim care and deficiencies in the collection of evidence.
In Horne’s case, she sought the help of police twice, but the experience was so poor it stopped her from reporting her husband when he assaulted her. The first time, after she reported that her husband had allegedly assaulted one of her children, she was told: “You are just a middle-class housewife. You need your heads banging together.”
The second time, distraught with worry after her husband failed to return one of the children home, she called police, but it was the same officer as before and the response was similar.
“Police made me feel like I was a hormonal, over-anxious mother,” she said. “You know that fear in the pit of your stomach when you don’t know where your child is. But I thought: “Maybe I am overreacting.’ Because of that, I didn’t call when I was spat at, locked out.”
Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said that this kind of controlling behaviour lies at the heart of domestic abuse. She said: “There’s a general underestimate of how dangerous coercive control is. It is a deeply damaging form of abuse. You could have a woman who is a victim of coercive control for years with no violence who leaves and is at a very high risk of violence or even being murdered.”
Neate said the vast majority of women accessing domestic violence services were experiencing coercive control, but did not feel they could come forward until they had a physical injury.
A survey of abuse victims by Women’s Aid found that 88% of victims said the criminal justice system did not take psychological harm into account and 94% said mental cruelty could be worse than physical violence.
Jennifer McLaughlin, a forensic psychologist at Liverpool John Moores University, has published research showing a strong association between “intimate partner abuse” and risk of suicide. She said: “The control aspect is more predictive of negative outcomes that any other aspect of abuse, for instance how long they have been in the relationship or severity of abuse.”
Neate said that this type of control was very common. “The control of a victim using fear is what domestic violence is all about. It’s not about suddenly losing your temper and lashing out, but we treat it as though it is. Risk assessment is too geared towards single-incident and physical abuse,” she said, which ignores the harm controlling behaviour can do over a long period of time.
Neate welcomes the amendment to the bill, but said that police training in recognising the crime was critical.
Critics of creating a new offence say that it would be almost impossible to implement, and what abuse victims really need is for police and others in the criminal justice system to he held accountable when they fail to do their jobs. But Fletcher, who successfully campaigned for stalking laws in England and Wales, said he had been involved in drafting the domestic violence bill because it was clear that the absence of a law was a contributory factor in the low rates of reporting, arrests, prosecutions and convictions. He looked at North Carolina and California in the US and also Canada, where similar laws were introduced, “Since such laws were introduced, reporting has increased by 50% and incidents of violence have decreased by a third,” he said.
According to Fletcher, these places are treating domestic abuse differently from the UK in two ways. First, they address the totality of the abusive behaviour, taking patterns into account, and secondly, they place mandatory duties on the police and prosecution services when investigating.
Fletcher’s bill, which carries a penalty of up to 14 years in jail for the most serious cases, requires every police force in England and Wales to develop and adopt domestic abuse policies within a year of it becoming law. It also places duties on ministers to provide training for others involved in the criminal justice system, social services and other bodies. He said: “It’s critical that the government’s definition of domestic violence is enshrined in law. That’s the only way more victims will come forward and the police will systematically gather all the evidence that would result in a prosecution and conviction.”
He said the government was expected to put forward its proposals later this month. “There is every chance that coercive control could be illegal by Christmas.”
Police in the UK receive a call a minute from the public or victims for assistance with domestic violence, or 1,300 calls every day. Two women are killed by a partner or ex-partner every week.
• Abbie Horne is not the interviewee’s real name. This was altered to protect her.
• Those seeking support or information on domestic violence can contact the National Domestic Violence Helpline, run in partnership by Women’s Aid and Refuge, on 0808 2000 247.
• This article was amended on 15 October 2014 to clarify that the 0808 number is run by the National Domestic Violence Helpline.