Domestic abuse takes many forms. Some abusers repeatedly dictate their partner’s choices and everyday actions, and may control how they acquire, use and maintain money and other resources, such as housing, food and transport. This behaviour is known as economic abuse.
This conversation kit has been created to help you discuss economic abuse with your client if you are concerned that they may be experiencing economic abuse, or if they raise the topic with you. It may help you to understand their situation so that you can offer appropriate support and so that they can better understand how you and the law can help them.
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Responses to economic abuse are at an early stage of development in the UK. It is vital that we better understand and address this issue because economic stability is linked to physical and emotional safety.
In our research into prosecutions for controlling or coercive behaviour, economic abuse was present in six out of ten cases of domestic abuse. Economic abuse rarely takes place in isolation. Instead, it often occurs alongside physical, sexual, or psychological abuse.
Moreover, when women experience economic abuse in the context of coercive control, then they are at increased risk of domestic homicide.
Abusers exploit women’s existing economic inequality or create economic instability to reduce their partner’s ability to resist control. Women who can’t find £100 at short notice, for example, are 3.5 times more likely to experience domestic abuse. Without access to the economic resources necessary to leave and live independently, victims stay with abusers for longer and experience more harm as a result.
As a family law professional, you may regularly encounter clients who have experienced or are experiencing domestic abuse, including economic abuse. Whether you are a solicitor, barrister or legal executive, you can play a key role in helping clients rebuild their lives and supporting them towards a safer, more independent and secure economic future.
As a family law professional, your role in supporting your client is limited to responding to their legal issues. It will help them to know that there is something that you can do to advise and support them through the family justice system but it is important to remember that the support you provide may give your client the confidence to speak out again in the future, perhaps with other professionals who can support them in different ways — practically, emotionally and economically.
It might feel daunting to talk to your client about economic abuse but remember that you aren’t there to solve everything. By simply talking to them about the issue and how the law can help them, you can help them achieve economic safety.
It is important to remember that speaking about economic abuse can be difficult for you as well as for your client. It may be that you identify with an experience the client describes, either because you have experienced something similar or know someone who has. For these and many other reasons, the experiences your client shares with you can have an emotional impact.
It is important to seek support if you feel that you need to. Your employer may have a domestic abuse policy or a workplace employee assistance programme, or it may help to speak to a manager or another colleague. You may also be able to contact your professional body for support, such as the Law Society, Family Law Bar Association or the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives.
If you have experienced abuse yourself and want to discuss this outside of work, there are domestic abuse helplines that you can call, many of which offer a 24-hour service.
Identifying whether your client is experiencing or is at risk of experiencing economic abuse is vital to help you to explore the best legal options for them.
Be aware that the abuser may have used or continue to be using many methods to control your client’s finances or economic position. Also be aware that the abuser may continue to try to exert this control during and after any legal proceedings.
There are a number of warning signs that may help you identify whether your client is experiencing or is at risk of experiencing economic abuse.
Look out for clients who tell you that their partner or former partner:
Other warning signs of economic abuse may arise during legal proceedings when the other party to proceedings:
Every time you speak to your client gives you an opportunity to discuss economic abuse with them. This might be in your very first communication with them, but it may also be as you continue to take instructions throughout your involvement in their case.
Remember that the abuser’s behaviour may change throughout any legal proceedings and that it will be important to check in with your client about any ongoing abuse at each stage.
Some clients may be forthcoming with information about the abuse they are experiencing, but there are many reasons why a person would be reluctant to disclose. You may need to be more proactive when exploring the possibility of economic abuse.
It is important to understand that your client may be feeling:
Remember also that your client may only just be coming to terms with the abuse they are experiencing. They may not yet have understood that what they are experiencing is abuse. For this reason, it is important to be gentle in how you ask questions about or discuss the issues around economic abuse.
Your client may also find it very difficult to talk about economic abuse with you because you are a stranger. There are some steps you can take to make it easier for them to talk about the abuse, however.
Responding to clients who have experienced domestic abuse, including economic abuse, may have become commonplace in your practice. Even if it is a common experience for you, remember that this may be the first time that your client has discussed the abuse with anyone.
As you might with any other clients you see for the first time, it can help to outline briefly how you might be able to help them and the types of areas of law you have expertise in. This can help to put them at ease and reassure them that you may be able to help. It may also help them to be more open with you about their experiences.
If you believe that your client is experiencing economic abuse, it can help to explain that they are not alone in their experience and that you and other professionals will be able to advise and support them.
As your role is limited to legal advice and representation, it may reassure them further if you can signpost them to other organisations for more practical and emotional support. Having this contact information at hand, rather than sending the client away to search for them, can relieve some of the stress they may be feeling.
There are steps you can take to create an environment that makes it easier for your client to talk to you about what is happening to them. This will, of course, depend on whether you are taking instructions from your client face-to-face or over the telephone.
Remember that the abuser may be monitoring your client’s communications and movements. Talking to you on the telephone or coming into the office to see you might be difficult and unsafe for them.
If you are worried that your client may be experiencing economic abuse, but they do not share this directly with you, it may be appropriate to ask more questions about their situation. They should be in a comfortable environment and know that you are there to support them.
You might not directly ask if they are experiencing economic abuse, but might ask some softer questions that open the conversation, for example, ‘How are things at home?’ See more discussion prompts to help you open the conversation below.
Remember that your client may not yet herself have identified that she is experiencing abuse, so be sure to ask questions gently and without judgment.
Whether on the telephone or in person, active listening skills are vital for creating an environment in which your client can speak openly. It will also help to ensure that you learn as much information as possible to allow you to support them in the appropriate ways.
Remember to give space and time for your client to explain the situation. If you need to, arrange to have the conversation when you have more time to listen to them. Offer a supportive response that is sensitive to the issues they may still be experiencing and encourages them to share as much information as possible with you.
Remember it is more difficult to show your client that you are actively listening while speaking on the telephone. Techniques such as reflecting back can be very useful. Using the precise words that your client has said to you demonstrates that you have been truly listening to them. Paraphrasing can also be a useful technique in allowing you to summarise what your client has told you and demonstrating that you have understood their situation and how they are feeling. Both these techniques help to build empathy between you.
Economic abuse can happen to anyone and it is very common. One in five UK adults has experienced financial abuse by a current or former partner, and over one third did not report it to anyone at the time.
It may have taken your client a long time to feel comfortable to disclose the abuse they have experienced. It is important not to be judgemental in your response, or express shock or horror at what you hear. They may have received judgmental responses previously, which may have made it harder for them to talk.
It is vital for survivors of abuse to be believed. Do not dismiss or minimise their experience even if you think what they are telling you is trivial or irrelevant to their legal options.
It is also important not to offer your own opinion as to what they should do, such as “If I were you…”. Respond in a professional, empathetic manner that reassures your client that you have heard and understood their situation. Give them a clear outline of their options but allow them the space and time to make their own decisions about what steps to take.
As a family law professional, your client may have issues that are outside your expertise or remit. It is not your role to solve all the issues that they may be experiencing. Remember that by being there, empathising and listening, you are already providing support. Your client may have practical and emotional support needs that it is not appropriate or possible for you to meet.
Become familiar with the local and national support organisations that may be meet those needs and always remember to signpost your client to them for additional support. This could include
You can find the contact information for these and other support services on SEA’s ‘Organisations that can help’ resource.
Using the principles of setting the scene and creating the right environment is a good way to think about opening the conversation with your client.
Use some soft, inviting questions that make it clear that you are there to listen and support them, and that establish the conversation with you as a safe space for your client. Explaining your duty of confidentiality to your client at the very beginning can help reassure them.
How you respond to your first conversation with your client will depend whether it is in a telephone call or face to face. Responding to a client affected by economic abuse requires time, so it is important to establish whether you both have sufficient time and space for the conversation. Remember that your client’s abuser may be monitoring their communications by phone or email, as well as their movements, so ask your client which is the safest option for them.
When you have established that your client can talk safely to you, you may wish to move the conversation towards economic abuse in a gentle way. Remember that economic abuse can still happen post-separation.
Try to respond to your client with empathy and understanding, so that they feel that you are there to support and not to judge them, and that the law is there to protect them.
Once you have taken full instructions and discussed the economic abuse your client has experienced or is experiencing, it will be time to give your client legal advice about their situation. We have a resource, Supporting clients experiencing economic abuse: A guide for legal professionals, that provides more information on how to address economic abuse, particularly in the context of financial relief and similar proceedings.
Remember that the law and legal processes can be frightening and intimidating to lay clients. Engaging in legal proceedings can be particularly daunting and confusing for those who have experienced economic abuse.
Continue to demonstrate empathy. As a result of the abuse, your client may be confused and uncertain and may find making decisions difficult. It is vital to give them time and autonomy in making decisions about their legal options.
Your client may be concerned that the abuser will find out they have sought legal advice. Reassure your client that you have a duty of confidentiality to them throughout your involvement in their case.
Remember that the dynamics of the abuse may change or even escalate during legal proceedings, so be alert for this and continue to discuss the extent and impact of the abuse on your client throughout your involvement in the case.
Your client may share elements of their story with you that extend beyond the remit of the support that you and the law can offer to them. Remember that you are not there to solve everything for them. There may be other agencies and organisations that can provide support with other issues that they may be facing. We have a resource on organisations that can help, which you may find useful.
Your client’s legal advice and representation needs are likely to be only one part of their recovery from economic abuse. Think about your client’s safety, both physical and emotional, and their other practical and economic needs. These may be more urgent than their legal needs.
Consider whether they have any particular needs on account of their sex, age, race, religion, sexual orientation and/or any disability and refer them to other appropriate specialist services.
Specialist services, such as domestic abuse organisations, can support their practical and emotional needs and may also be able to work in partnership with you to better support your client. For example, an Independent Domestic Violence Advocate may be able to come to appointments or to court with your client to support them emotionally and help them understand what is happening. Remember, however, that other professionals have different rules relating to confidentiality. Whilst this should not be a barrier to working together, it is important for your client to understand.
Talk to your client about whether they need help with debt or understanding their eligibility or applications for welfare benefits. Signpost them to debt or money advice services as appropriate.
Consider how your client’s financial institutions (banks, building societies or mortgage companies) may be able to support them to gain control of their finances. Suggest that they make contact and assure them that they should have processes in place to support them as a survivor of economic abuse. We have information on how banks can help, which your client may find useful.
It may at times feel that there is little you can do to support your client beyond providing them with legal advice and representation. Try to remember that speaking to them confidentially about this issue, giving them your time, and letting them know what the law can do for them may give them the confidence they need to seek further support and to find safety from the abuse they are experiencing.
You may find further advice or guidance on supporting clients affected by economic abuse from your own professional bodies, such as the Law Society, Family Law Bar Association or the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives. Resolution, the family lawyers’ association, for example, has a domestic abuse toolkit which could support your work.
We have more information that you may find helpful for understanding economic abuse, including:
To fully support clients experiencing economic abuse, we recommend you undertake training on the topic.
If one of your clients is experiencing economic abuse, they are not alone. We have information that can support them to take steps towards safety and begin to regain control of their finances, including:
Last updated October 2020
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