“He has ongoing, indefinite power to destroy our lives.” Why the Domestic Abuse Bill must not forget victims of post-separation control

As the Domestic Abuse Bill finally reaches committee stage, the government must extend legislation to protect victims of post-separation abuse.

One in four women report that their former partner continues to economically abuse and control them after the relationship has ended, yet the current legislation offers them no recourse.

This is why Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA) is calling for an amendment to extend the existing legislation on coercive control to post-separation abuse.  This has to be the moment we ensure these women don’t get left behind.

At SEA, we work with Experts by Experience, survivors who share their stories to be a force for change and directly inform everything we do. At a Home Office roundtable discussion about the Bill, many of these women raised this issue, explaining that the abuse can not only continue but escalate after they have left – even if the abuser doesn’t know where they are. For these women, post-separation abuse can feel like a life sentence. “The abuse doesn’t actually stop. Ever,” one woman said. “Economic abuse is your past, present and future,” said another. One survivor told the room: “He has ongoing, indefinite power to destroy our lives.”

It is well known that coercive control continues after separation and can be a very dangerous time in which victims are at heightened risk of homicide. Yet as it stands, the Serious Crime Act 2015 offers no protection for women in this position.

Instead, the current offence of controlling or coercive behaviour only covers situations where people are either a) in an intimate relationship with each other or b) living together and are either family members or have previously been in an intimate relationship with each other.

Crucially, this means in cases where two individuals are no longer in an intimate relationship and don’t live together, behaviour by one of them towards the other cannot fall within the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour. This is the situation that women who have left abusive partners find themselves in.

Since our inception, SEA called for economic abuse to be in the new statutory definition of domestic abuse, highlighting how much this would help survivors. Yet this important milestone is being undermined by the Act’s limitations. The Bill can’t profess to properly understand economic abuse if offences don’t recognise and reflect the full extent and nature of the crime.  The Bill’s new definition of abuse also recognises that domestic abuse is not limited to those within a relationship or living together. So again, the limitation of the coercive or controlling offence fails to support this new understanding.

Some have argued that stalking and harassment legislation could fill this gap. But this isn’t correct. This legislation does not speak to the specific realities of economic abuse. The stalking offence is framed as a course of conduct which causes the victim to fear that violence will be used against her or causes serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on her day-to-day activities. This wording is not a natural fit for the kinds of economic harm faced by women after they’ve left.

For example, economic abuse both during and after a relationship generally consists of an abuser exercising control over the survivor, through denying access to economic resources such as money, and sabotaging economic resources or exploiting them, so as to create economic instability and prevent a survivor from rebuilding their life safely and independently. This could include: spending money from the victim’s personal bank account or a joint account; running up bills in the victim’s name; prolonging the sale of joint property; interfering with the victims’ employment; and non-payment for a joint mortgage to the point of repossession which could lead to homelessness.  All of these things would fall outside of the stalking legislation.

For many survivors who have left an abusive partner, they endure the unspeakable double bind of trying to overcome the economic damage inflicted by the abuser when they were in the relationship, and deal with new forms of economic abuse post-separation, many of which seem endless. As a result, some of these women feel that they haven’t left at all, remaining victims of control, manipulation and abuse.

Amending the Serious Crime Act 2015 is essential in ensuring that these women are protected by the law. In order to be effective, our legislation must have full understanding of the workings of economic abuse, and this must include the emotional agony and financial devastation of post-separation economic abuse.

Statement of support from David Challen:

“The abuse my mother experienced carried on after she moved home and separated from my father, as is so often the case. For example, my mother was struggling immensely to survive post-separation from my father. Seeing her weakness in wishing to reconcile, my father drew up a post-nuptial agreement that forced her to complete a divorce with him and accept a fraction of the settlement. This not only ensured she was financially unstable but gave her no rights to their home. Further terms of the agreement sought to coercively control my mother further demanding that they only go out together, that she stopped talking to strangers, stop interrupting and stop smoking. I believe the control my father sought to exert in this period compounded the psychological impact on my mother. It’s vital to specifically recognise the bespoke nature of post-separation abuse by ensuring the Domestic Abuse Bill provides a complete acknowledgement of survivors experiences and protection in the future. If left unchecked, the impact of economic and emotional abuse can be total on survivors.”