Following the recent amendment to the controlling or coercive behaviour legislation in England and Wales, abuse taking place after a relationship has ended may now be considered as part of this offence. This blog post provides an overview of the latest changes, what they mean in real terms, and how they strengthen the legal framework around this form of domestic abuse.
Controlling or coercive behaviour became recognised as a criminal offence in England and Wales in 2015. This new offence aimed to close a gap in existing laws on stalking and harassment, ensuring controlling or coercive behaviour taking place in an ongoing intimate relationship was reflected in law.
“The offence closes a gap in the law around patterns of controlling or coercive behaviour that occurs during a relationship between intimate partners, former partners who still live together or family members. This offence sends a clear message that this form of domestic abuse can constitute a serious offence, particularly in light of the violation of trust it represents and will provide better protection to victims experiencing repeated or continuous abuse. It sets out the importance of recognising the harm caused by coercion or control, the cumulative impact on the victim and that a repeated pattern of abuse can be more injurious and harmful than a single incident of violence.”
Controlling or Coercive Behaviour Statutory Guidance Framework, 2015 (updated April 2023)
The Home Office defines controlling or coercive behaviour as “an intentional pattern of behaviour that occurs on two or more occasions, or which takes place over time, in order for one individual to exert power, control or coercion over another.” This may include physical intimidation, emotional and psychological abuse and controlling, limiting, or threatening behaviours. The offence also includes economic abuse, a form of controlling or coercive behaviour that limits a victim’s access to economic resources, making it difficult to leave their abuser.
The legislation reflected a significant development in the understanding of domestic abuse, recognising that domestic abuse can involve a wider pattern of abusive behaviours and may not always include physical violence. In recognising more of these abusive behaviours, the legislation broadened the legal protection available for victims.
However, until recently, this protection only applied where people were either a) in an intimate relationship with each other or b) living together and either family members or previously in an intimate relationship with each other. Crucially, this meant that in cases where two individuals were no longer in an intimate relationship and did not live together, controlling or coercive behaviour by one of them towards the other did not fall within the offence.
This presented a significant gap in the protection afforded victims as many controlling or coercive behaviours worsen, or even start, after a victim leaves the abuser. One in four women reports that their former partner continues to economically abuse and control them after the relationship has ended*. 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 victim’s employment; and non-payment for a joint mortgage.
In 2021, with the support of SafeLives and other organisations, SEA led the successful call for legislation on controlling or coercive behaviour to extend to post-separation abuse. In removing the residency requirement, controlling or coercive behaviour can now be prosecuted as a criminal offence even if the parties are no longer in a relationship and are not living together. This amendment provides several key improvements.
Understanding of domestic abuse
By broadening the scope of Controlling or Coercive Behaviour to include post-separation abuse, the amendment provides a more comprehensive understanding of the issue and ensures that victims are better protected. It recognises that post-separation abuse is a significant concern that should be considered within the context of domestic abuse. This understanding is vital as the risks during the post-separation period, including the potential for violence against victim-survivors and their children, are high. Studies reviewing cases of domestic homicides and victim suicides have shown that a significant percentage of these incidents occurred shortly after, or in anticipation of, the end of the relationship.
The amendment strengthens protections for victims and facilitates their pursuit of justice. By acknowledging the abusive behaviour that victims may face after the relationship has ended, the amendment highlights the importance of effective intervention to address post-separation abuse. This recognition enhances the legal framework to better support victims in seeking protection and holding perpetrators accountable for their actions.
By removing the residency requirement, perpetrators can now be held accountable regardless of their relationship status. The updated statutory guidance following the amendment also addresses tactics that may be used to control or harm victim-survivors even after the relationship is over. This can include using power and control dynamics to manipulate family court proceedings and exerting control through child arrangements and child maintenance. By addressing these manipulative tactics and exploring improved measures to protect victims and their children, the amendment aims to heighten the responsibility of abusers and ensure their actions are not left unchallenged.
Recent changes to the controlling or coercive behaviour legislation represent a positive step towards better protecting victim-survivors of domestic abuse and holding perpetrators fully accountable. The amendment also acknowledges that coercive behaviours can continue (and in some cases escalate or even start) once a relationship ends and that those fleeing abuse are often at increased risk.
With the change to the law secured, more needs to be done to ensure the amendment is put into action effectively. The police, Crown Prosecution Service and others in the criminal justice system need to understand post-separation abuse and the different ways it can manifest, including economic abuse where there is already less awareness and understanding. This calls for increased training on economic abuse, post-separation abuse and how these relate to the amended controlling or coercive behaviour offence.
You can find further information on the post-separation abuse amendment, including an FAQ, here.
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