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Why a New Domestic Abuse Law Isn't Yet Stopping Tragic Homicides

The coercive control law was a watershed moment for women’s rights in 2015, but it's not made a major difference to domestic abuse rates.

by Rose Stokes; illustrated by Mike Hughes
14 January 2020, 9:00am

Luke and Ryan Hart found out their dad had murdered their mother Claire and sister Charlotte – and then killed himself – via a BBC news alert. It was July 2016 and neither son lived in England at the time. “As soon as we saw the news that gunshots had been fired in the swimming pool car park in Spalding, where we grew up, we knew what had happened,” Luke tells me in the living room of the home he now shares with Ryan and their two dogs. The local police soon confirmed the brothers' fears, and they were told to fly home. “We knew our dad was controlling – but until that moment, we had never thought he was capable of murder.” They'd never seen him being violent, so what had changed?

In the following weeks, details began to surface about the events preceding the attack. For one, that their father had left a violent, 12-page "note". For another, that 50-year-old Claire and 19-year-old Charlotte had moved out of the family home just four days beforehand with the financial support and help of Luke and Ryan. Or that their father had also killed one of the family’s dogs in the preceding weeks. “It took a while, but over the coming months we started to understand that our dad’s behaviour had followed a common pattern for domestic homicides,” says Luke. Both he and his brother are now domestic abuse campaigners.

A poster they saw at the local police station, explained a concept they’d never heard of before: "coercive control". Suddenly, they felt their experience shift into focus. Charity Women's Aid described coercive control as “an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten a victim”. It's often cited as a precursor for domestic homicide cases.

In December 2015, the Coercive or Controlling Behaviour Offence was added to the Serious Crime Act in England and Wales. This was supposed to change things. According to Laura Richards, a criminal behavioural analyst and one of the architects of the legislation, “the introduction of the coercive control offence addressed a serious criminalisation gap in UK law that was disproportionately hurting women." Before the law was updated, anything non-physical that happened as a relationship fell apart wasn’t criminalised. That meant the police didn’t have any legal way to intervene where domestic abuse didn't show evidence of physical violence. But since December 2015, the law now defines abuse as “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”. That can include financial, sexual, psychological and emotional abuse, rather than only physical.

And so the legislation was intended to help the police identify would-be perpetrators of domestic homicide before their behaviour escalated to violence. “It was the first legal acknowledgement that domestic homicides are usually the result of a pattern of abusive behaviour that escalates over time rather than an isolated incident,” says Laura. In theory, it gave the criminal justice system a legal framework to prosecute non-violent forms of domestic abuse, like financial or emotional manipulation, and identify a behavioural trend in perpetrators before they escalated to violence or – in the most extreme cases – murder.

But in 2018, the number of recorded domestic homicides reached a five-year high, according to an investigation by the BBC. The report indicated that 173 people were killed in domestic violence-related homicides in 2018, of which around three-quarters were women. The perpetrators were predominantly male. Worryingly, data recently published by the ONS point to another trend: though reports of domestic abuse-related crime rose by 24 percent between March 2018 and March 2019, pre-charge decisions the police referred to the Crown Prosecution Service fell by 11 percent over that period. So what, if anything, accounts for that incongruence?

According to the ONS data, police recorded 17,616 coercive control offences between March 2018 and March 2019 – almost double the amount recorded the previous year. Calculating how many of those resulted in conviction is complicated, though, because conviction outcomes are recorded by the Ministry of Justice, whose data sets are measured across the calendar year and therefore don’t match up.

But it is useful to highlight that the police recorded a total of 1.31 million reported domestic abuse-related incidents in the same period, according to data from the Crime Survey for England and Wales cited in the ONS report. Of those, just 746,219 were subsequently recorded as a crime, meaning that almost half (43 percent) were dropped. This seems to be worrying enough in itself – who may be in danger in those lost numbers? – but it does suggest we're seeing a comparatively low number of coercive control offences and convictions, given the wider data on domestic abuse.

The report goes on to state that "Violence against the person offences made up the majority (78 percent) of all domestic-abuse related cases in the year ending March 2019". This 78 percent figure is so high even though numerous criminal behaviour experts, including Dr Jane Monckton Smith (who identified the eight-stage pattern that results in domestic homicide), have demonstrated that coercive control is very often either a precursor to or an additional facet of more physical and violent forms of domestic abuse. Knowing this, it seems odd that the coercive control incidence rate is so low, and suggests a serious issue with identifying the offence by law enforcement professionals.

And this hasn’t gone unnoticed. In a new British Journal of Criminology paper, the authors found “missed opportunities for using the coercive control offence in nine out of ten cases” of actual bodily harm in one police force. Laura says that a huge part of the problem stems from a lack of awareness about the links between coercive control and homicide. “The offence not being used is a major problem, not the law itself,” she explains. "It shows how important training is for all professionals in the criminal justice system, but especially police, the Crown Prosecution Service, judges, magistrates and court staff.” In 2018, the BBC found that the majority of coercive control cases between January 2016 and July 2018 had been dropped by police. At the moment, comprehensive training to help professionals understand what coercive control looks like and how to notice signs and build a case is not mandatory.

Luke believes that a lack of political will to end domestic abuse, together with entrenched misogyny in the criminal justice system are also to blame. “The law almost encourages violence because in order to be protected, you need to have been attacked in some way.” Referencing a 2018 UN Office on Drugs and Crime report that concluded women are the least safe at home, he uses anti-terrorism as an example of legislation in place to prosecute people for planning an attack, rather than just carrying one out. “The numbers killed by domestic homicide are ten times those killed by terrorism in this country,” he tells me, “yet we don’t approach it with nearly the same tenacity.” After reviewing his dad’s recent Google search history in the days following the tragedy, he found numerous searches that in any other context would have thrown up alerts to the authorities that could have saved his mother and sister's lives.

For Harriet Wistrich, the director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, the legislation has been an “important tool for reframing societal understanding of abuse and how it can manifest.” Of course though, this is only the case if people are properly educated on what coercive control is in the first place. The good news is that there are plans to start including education on “healthy relationships” in the UK’s school curriculum, with a specific reference to coercive control – but more must be done to educate adults and those who have left the school system.

“The law helps to legitimise the problem but it doesn’t do much to fix it,” says Luke. For him, as well as Harriet and Laura, education is the solution to ending violence against women – but that can happen only with proper commitment from government to ending domestic abuse. In an environment of austerity, it’s hard to imagine the criminal justice system being appropriately resourced to be able to provide such training.

“The coercive control law is the greatest piece of legislation there is to protect people in their homes, and has completely shifted the paradigm on our understanding as a society of domestic abuse,” says Luke, his words flecked with the anger of someone who has paid the ultimate price for our blindness on this issue. “But without effective implementation, it can’t help to reduce domestic homicide rates.” A greater societal understanding of coercive control could have saved the lives of Charlotte and Claire Hart. Tragically for Luke and Ryan, this is a reality they must live with every single day.

@RoseStokes / @badnewsmikehughes

Tagged:
violence against women
british law
coercive control
domestic homicide