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.
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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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
The guidance documents give further examples of types of behaviour that are considered controlling or coercive. Many of them overlap with economic abuse:
When the guidance is updated later this year, we expect it will include more emphasis on economic abuse.
Controlling or coercive behaviour is a crime in England and Wales if the following circumstances apply:
A ‘substantial adverse effect’ on the victim could include:
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.
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.
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.
Proving that abuse took place will require evidence.
The following may help prove economic abuse:
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
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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