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Prosecuting an abuser

The information on this page relates to the law in England and Wales. Our listing of other useful organisations has details of organisations that may have information relevant to Northern Ireland and Scotland.  


If you have experienced economic abuse, you may be able to pursue a prosecution against the abuser for controlling or coercive behaviour, depending on the circumstances.  

Some economically abusive behaviour may fall into other criminal offences, such as theft, fraud or criminal damage. A pattern of economic abuse may be considered by the police as controlling or coercive behaviour.  

“He controlled everything in my life, from the food I could eat to the people I could see. He would write me a list of errands I had to do each day and refused to carry any money because he had his own personal bank with him — me.”

What is controlling or coercive behaviour? 

Domestic abuse takes many forms and does not always involve the use of physical violence. In 2015, controlling or coercive behaviour became a crime in England and Wales for the first time. This made it a legally recognised form of domestic abuse. 

Controlling or coercive behaviour involves one person exerting power or control over another, or coercing them to do things against their wishes.  

Guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service on the offence, which is found in section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, gives further information: 

Controlling behaviour includes a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by:  

  • isolating them from sources of support  
  • exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain  
  • depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape  
  • regulating their everyday behaviour.  

Coercive behaviour is a continuing act (or a pattern) of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation, or other abuse that is used to harm, punish or frighten the victim.

To challenge controlling or coercive behaviour, people normally need money and economic resources, such as access to transport and a place to stay. Without these, leaving an abuser is difficult. Perpetrators of controlling or coercive behaviour recognise this and use economic abuse as a way of limiting their victim’s choices.  

Controlling or coercive behaviour and economic abuse

“In angry rages he often broke things I had bought him. It felt easier to pay for things for him than risk confrontation, guilting or worse.” 

Legal definition

The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 recognises economic abuse in law, by including it in the legal definition of domestic 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). 

 The inclusion of economic abuse in the legal definition of domestic abuse does not make economic abuse a crime in itself. However, it means that the police and other statutory agencies should now be aware of economic abuse and would therefore be more likely to consider it as a form of controlling or coercive behaviour.  

Guidance on the law 

There are several guidance documents that give more information to support the police in implementing the law on controlling or coercive behaviour. The current guidance is due to be updated to recognise the changes brought in through the Domestic Abuse Act.  

The current guidance from the Home Office recognises financial abuse (a sub-category of economic abuse) as controlling or coercive. It mentions, ‘Financial abuse, including control of finances, such as only allowing a person a punitive allowance.’ 

Guidance on the law from the Crown Prosecution Service also gives examples of controlling or coercive behaviour that link to economic abuse:  

  • limiting access to family, friends and finances  
  • taking wages, benefits or allowances. 

The guidance documents give further examples of types of behaviour that are considered controlling or coercive. Many of them overlap with economic abuse:  

  • isolating the victim from their friends and family, eg not allowing them to use transport or the phone  
  • depriving the victim of their basic needs, such as access to heating and water
  • repeatedly putting them down, eg insisting they only eat ‘value’ branded foods and telling them that they are ‘worthless’
  • enforcing rules and activity that humiliate, degrade or dehumanise the victim, eg making them beg for money
  • forcing the victim to commit a crime, such as fraudulently applying for benefits 
  • preventing the victim from being able to attend school, college or university, for example, by destroying their laptop or limiting transport
  • assault, eg assaulting the victim for spending ‘too much’ money  
  • criminal damage, eg smashing the victim’s mobile phone  
  • preventing the victim having access to transport or from working, eg damaging their work clothes or hiding their bus pass
  • reputational damage to sabotage the victim’s job, eg sending sexually explicit pictures to their line manager

When the guidance is updated later this year, we expect it will include more emphasis on economic abuse.  

When is controlling or coercive behaviour a crime? 

Controlling or coercive behaviour is a crime in England and Wales if the following circumstances apply:  

  • The behaviour takes place repeatedly or continuously.  
  • It takes place in intimate or family relationships. The victim and perpetrator must be ‘personally connected’ at the time, meaning:  
    • they are in an intimate relationship  
    • they live together and are members of the same family  
    • they live together and have previously been in an intimate relationship with each other.   
  • It causes the victim to fear on at least two occasions that violence will be used against them or it causes serious alarm or distress that has a ‘substantial adverse effect’ on the victim’s day-to-day activities.  

A ‘substantial adverse effect’ on the victim could include: 

  • not being able to socialise, or a change in the way they socialise 
  • a deterioration in physical or mental health 
  • needing to make a change to routines at home, including routines associated with mealtimes or household chores 
  • effects on school attendance record 
  • putting in place measures at home to safeguard themselves or their children 
  • changes to work patterns, employment status or routes to work 

For the behaviour to be criminal, the perpetrator must have known that it would have a serious effect, or ought to have known that it would.  

“He considered my money his, and when I bought something with my money he got very cross. He would stand over me or block the door, and once tried to push me down the stairs.”

Post-separation abuse

The Serious Crime Act only applied to controlling or coercive behaviour where the parties were living together or in a relationship. SEA led the successful call for the offence to be extended to post-separation abuse, through an amendment to the Serious Crime Act introduced in the Domestic Abuse Act.

The amendment to the offence is due to come into force in summer/autumn 2022. Until this time, post-separation abuse cannot be prosecuted as controlling or coercive behaviour but might come within another offence, such as Stalking.  

The post-separation abuse amendment will apply to behaviour occurring after the amendment comes into force. It cannot be applied retrospectively.  

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

Reporting economic abuse to the police

Abuse that doesn’t leave bruises can be harder to prove. However, a total of 584 defendants were prosecuted for a principal offence of controlling and coercive behaviour in 2019. 305 were convicted and sentenced. Our report ‘Into plain sight‘ has information on how economic abuse is reflected in successful prosecutions of controlling or coercive behaviour.

If the conditions detailed above under the controlling or coercive behaviour offence apply to your situation, you can report the abuser to the police. Usually, the police will investigate and decide whether to pass the case on to the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute.  

The controlling or coercive behaviour offence came into force on 29 December 2015 in England and Wales. If the abuse you experienced took place before this date, it cannot be prosecuted under this law. However, charges for controlling or coercive behaviour brought after this date can consider previous behaviour as evidence of a person’s character. 

Evidence

Proving that abuse took place will require evidence.  

The following may help prove economic abuse:  

  • copies of emails, phone records or text messages  
  • evidence of abuse over the internet and social media platforms  
  • photographs of the household  
  • records of interaction with support services, such as debt counselling  
  • witness testimonies from family, friends and neighbours  
  • bank records to show financial control  
  • records from housing services, such as complaints from other tenants or records of damage to the property, such as holes in walls  
  • an account given to the police as evidence of isolation  

If you are considering pursuing a prosecution for economic abuse, speak to your local domestic abuse service, who may be able to support you. Women’s Aid has a directory of local domestic abuse support services that you can search. 

 We also have information on accessing low-cost legal support.  

Last updated July 2022

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.

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