By Baroness Lister
On Monday, alongside a number of peers from across the House of Lords, I attended a roundtable discussion hosted by the Designate Domestic Abuse Commissioner, Nicole Jacobs.
Dr Nicola Sharp-Jeffs OBE, Cyrene Siriwardhana and Angela Magny of Surviving Economic Abuse were present, as was Cassandra Wiener, an academic who has been providing specialist advice on post separation abuse and the criminal law. Also joining the conversation were representatives from the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice.
Everyone present was familiar with the devastating impact of post-separation abuse. Yet no amount of knowledge can prepare you for hearing the harrowing stories of women who have experienced the abuse themselves.
Dr Sharp-Jeffs introduced the story of Anna*. During 20 years of marriage, Anna’s husband was economically, physically, emotionally and sexually abusive. After an attack where she almost lost her life, Anna fled with her children. This, she thought, would end the abuse. It did not.
Anna discovered debts and financial obligations that had been accumulated in her name and hidden from her, including bank loans of £70,000. As if this wasn’t enough, other forms of economic abuse began post-separation.
Her ex-husband emptied joint accounts and repeatedly refuses to give his consent to close joint products. He refuses to cancel direct debits or to pay bills owing from the marital home. During divorce proceedings, because of the debt she had been left with to pay off, Anna could not afford legal representation and was left to face her ex-husband’s litigation team alone. Her ex-husband also made malicious allegations to her employer which caused Anna to lose her job.
Currently, Anna’s ex-husband refuses to pay child maintenance and often Anna’s children go hungry. Last month, he informed her that he missed his children and wanted to go back to the family courts. Right now, because Anna neither lives with the perpetrator or is still in an intimate relationship with him, there is no legal recourse from the ongoing bombardment of economic abuse and Anna is #StillNotSafe.
Anna’s story was extremely powerful. One peer commented that it left her “feeling cold”. Cassandra Wiener emphasized that Anna’s story showed how dangerous controlling behaviour can be. This is especially true on the point of, or immediately after separation. There is an urgency to this legislation. Anna escaped – but sadly we know that many others do not. We must not underestimate that coercive control can be deadly.
Following on from Anna’s story, we heard how the existing legislative framework was not able, as it stands, to support her or the many others in her predicament. In particular, we heard how the existing stalking laws do not allow the police and CPS to prosecute post separation abuse. This leaves women like Anna vulnerable. With this in mind, we went on to hear unanimous, cross-party support for the necessity of including provision within the Domestic Abuse Bill to amend the scope of the Controlling or Coercive behaviour Offence in the Serious Crime Act to include post-separation abuse. But it was also noted that the law can only serve its true purpose if it is enforced by trained police officers.
In Scotland, every single police officer will receive specialist domestic abuse training. In England, only just over half of police forces have received this training, partly because the forces have to fund the training themselves. This can mean that the forces that are most in need of training are the least likely to get it. For victims currently experiencing abuse there is a ‘postcode lottery’ when it comes to getting help. Whether or not you can call the police and receive an informed frontline response is dependent on where you live.
Should post-separation abuse become a criminal offence, as we hope and intend that it will, then there is a danger that it too will become subject to the same ‘postcode lottery’ without adequate training. The right police response is essential in securing both a victim’s safety and holding perpetrators to account, and the issue needs urgent attention.
In the meantime, we will continue to ask the government to ensure that post-separation abuse will become the criminal offence that victims need and deserve it to be. The Domestic Abuse Bill can only be the landmark legislation it promises to be if it understands and tackles all types of abuse and works to protect all victims.
Without the inclusion of post-separation abuse, far too many women are still not safe.
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