Economic abuse and the Domestic Abuse Act

The information on this page relates to the Domestic Abuse Act (2021) for England and Wales.

The effects of economic abuse can be life-changing, but this form of abuse has never before been recognised in law.  

What is the Domestic Abuse Act?

“I am completely broke and broken. I have no food for my child. I can’t pay my rent or my bills. We sit in the dark in our coats with hot water bottles because I can’t afford gas and electricity. I’m totally isolated and full of shame and guilt.”

The Domestic Abuse Act (2021) for England and Wales contains new measures to protect victim-survivors of domestic abuse.

It gives a legal definition of domestic abuse which for the first time includes economic abuse. It also defines economic abuse.

It made controlling or coercive behaviour that takes place after separation a criminal offence.

It created a Domestic Abuse Commissioner role to monitor the government’s response to domestic abuse.

You can read the full Domestic Abuse Act. 

What difference does it make? 

1. The Act recognises economic abuse 

Economic abuse is now recognised in law in England and Wales for the very first time. It is listed as a form of abusive behaviour in the Domestic Abuse Act, alongside other forms such as physical and sexual abuse, and psychological and emotional abuse. 

Economic abuse often occurs in the context of intimate partner violence. It involves the control of a partner or ex-partner’s money and finances, as well as the things that money can buy.

Economic abuse can include exerting control over income, spending, bank accounts, bills and borrowing. It can also include controlling access to and use of things like transport and technology, which allow us to work and stay connected, as well as property and daily essentials like food and clothing. It can include destroying items and refusing to contribute to household costs.  

This type of abuse can continue long after leaving and can have lifelong effects, preventing victims from rebuilding their lives.

2. The Act defines economic abuse 

The Act defines economic abuse as any behaviour that has a substantial and adverse effect on an individual’s ability to: 

  • acquire, use or maintain money or other property (such as a mobile phone or car) or  
  • obtain goods (such as food and clothing) or services (such as utilities, like heating)

This definition provides a common understanding of what economic abuse is.

The Act does not make economic abuse a crime in its own right. However, it means that the police and other statutory agencies should now be aware of economic abuse. This means they are more likely to consider it under the controlling or coercive behaviour offence.  

3. The Act recognises abuse that takes place post-separation

SEA led the successful call for the Domestic Abuse Act to recognise abuse that takes place after a relationship has ended as controlling or coercive behaviour. The Act extends the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour to cover post-separation abuse. This change to the law came into effect on 5 April 2023.

We have an FAQ with further information about post-separation abuse and the law.

4. The Act raises awareness of economic abuse 

The inclusion of economic abuse in the legal definition of domestic abuse helps raise awareness of it.  

Domestic abuse has long been understood to include forms of physical violence. Economic abuse does not ‘leave bruises’, and so it often goes unnoticed.  

The change to the law is helping ensure more people are aware of the signs of economic abuse, so it can be recognised earlier.  

5. The Act is helping improve responses to economic abuse 

Services such as the police, housing and social services must now consider how they respond to economic abuse.  

As part of recognising and responding to the needs of ‘vulnerable customers’, many companies that have contact with victims and survivors of economic abuse are already doing this. Several banks and building societies, for example, are training their staff and reviewing policies and procedures that can inadvertently facilitate economic abuse. 

You can find out about what support your bank or building society may offer in our Banking Support Directory.

6. The Act is helping victims access justice 

The Act helps hold perpetrators of economic abuse to account so that victims can access justice.  

The government has updated the statutory guidance on the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour so that it includes economic abuse. This guidance supports the police in effectively enforcing the law. It includes examples of economic abuse and a case study, as well as examples of post-separation economic abuse.

Relevant Crown Prosecution Service guidance will also be updated. This will support legal professionals in prosecuting perpetrators of controlling or coercive behaviour more effectively. This should include information specific to economic abuse and post-separation abuse.

Police training now also supports officers to identify and respond to economic abuse.

Last updated April 2024

Further support 

If you are experiencing economic abuse, you are not alone. We have more information that can support you to take steps towards safety and begin to regain control of your finances.