Domestic violence is now widely understood to encompass more than punches, and to affect both men and women. Since 2013 the cross-government definition of domestic violence encompasses physical, financial, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse and coercive and controlling behaviour. it is this definition which is replicated in the practice directions to the FPR 2010. As noted in the Family Court Practice 2015, coercive control fits quite comfortably within the range of behaviours which can properly be injuncted by a non-molestation order made by the Family Court.
But coercive control has not to date been a criminal offence (save where it is also a breach of a non-molestation order).
Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 will change that. It has not yet been implemented but is likely to be brought into force in the next few months.
I spoke at a conference on Coercive Control in Bury St Edmunds this week and as a result BBC Radio Suffolk ran a piece about coercive control, asking Marilyn Stowe for comment. I did not hear the radio show but I have read Marilyn’s subsequent blogpost in which she sets out her views, and whilst I agree with some of it (Marilyn usually talks a lot of sense) there are some points I disagree with. You can read it here : Section 76 and the Serious Crime Act on Radio Suffolk.
At the conference I talked about coercive control in the Family Courts. I won’t bore you with what I said, but what I noticed was this : Although most attendees and speakers were female victims or worked with female victims, and as such had experience primarily of domestic violence as it affects women rather than men, all the speakers I saw (I had to leave before the end) acknowledged (rather self-consciously) that abusive behaviour including coercive control could affect men as well as women. One talked about how debate around domestic violence is very polarised – feminist versus men’s rights. And that of course is exactly how it is, and it’s a shame that is so. It does not help anybody. We should be able to talk about the gendered nature of domestic violence without being accused of suggesting it does not affect all genders and sexualities. Debate can become stale and formulaic in this environment, replicating the gendered interactions in an intimate relationship – an abusive relationship on a population size scale, played out in public as we call each other feminazis or father’s rights nutters (or whatever). We shouldn’t have to fit in one or other box to have a voice.
Marilyn’s blog expresses some worries about this new offence of coercive control and how it will work in practice. I have some concerns also, but they are not the same as Marilyn’s. I recognise that coercive control is “a thing” (and a serious one) but as the convoluted crafting of the legislation demonstrates, on the margins there is an element of subjectivity about what it actually is – a punch is a punch but one person’s “regularly being a bit of an arse” is another’s coercive control. But that is not to say we should hold up our hands in despair and do nothing. I worry though that it is an offence which is likely to be very hard to successfully prosecute and that either there will be a low rate of prosecutions or a high rate of failed prosecutions (or both). That is because this offence has several components each of which will need to be proved beyond reasonable doubt. Marilyn says
…good intentions are one thing, effective intervention in the intricacies of human behaviour another. How do you enforce such a law? What corroboration will be judged sufficient to found a prosecution? Will it ultimately boil down to her word against his and therefore a question of which one of the two parties you believe?
Well probably not Marilyn, no. I imagine in most cases in order to secure a prosecution there will need to be some third party or independent evidence of the behaviour in question. The prosecution must satisfy the high standard of proof – that is a significant safeguard for defendants.
Marilyn goes on to say this :
A defence is set out in Section 76 (8). It requires the defendant to demonstrate the behaviour was reasonable. But what if the infringing behaviour was exaggerated or worse, never happened at all? Could it come down to which party is the more skilled actor?
In other words, is the person claiming to be the victim really as innocent as they claim? A seriously- held assumption behind such initiatives is almost always ‘women are the victims, and men are the guilty parties’, but the uncomfortable truth is that I have encountered more than one case in which the woman, skilfully playing the victim for all its worth, turned out to be the aggressor or abuser. Such women are readily believed when they claim that their partner is “very controlling” and the men targeted are left to struggle against an immediate gender prejudice and assumptions of guilt.
I have some difficulties with this. Firstly, the description of the defence is inaccurate. The defence is available only in cases where an alleged victim is caused serious alarm and distress but not where the alleged victim is made repeatedly to fear violence. The defence is available where the defendant is able to produce “prima facie” evidence that s/he believed themselves to be acting in the alleged victim’s best interests, AND the behaviour was in all the circumstances reasonable. It is NOT simply a question of the defence showing the behaviour was reasonable. Furthermore, once the defence have done enough to legitimately raise the defence the burden of proof shifts back to the prosecution to prove the defence does not apply to the criminal standard. This is really important. The defendant may say (to use an example drawn from my professional experience) “well I withheld her prescription drugs because she was addicted to them. I did it for her own good”. Fair enough. Now the defence have to prove that ain’t so. That is likely to be quite tricky. And don’t forget, regardless of the defence, the prosecution still have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the alleged behaviour took place at all – on multiple occasions.
If, as Marilyn suggests, the infringing behaviour was exaggerated or entirely fabricated (which I acknowledge is not unheard of in Family Court cases) – it is highly unlikely that the prosecution will be able to satisfactorily prove the “substantial adverse effect on [the alleged victim’s] usual day-to-day activities” that is part of the offence in “alarm and distress” cases. There of course is a risk of malicious fabrication, but this is true of many offences – the presumption of innocence and the high standard of proof are the means by which the criminal justice system protects defendants against such scenarios. As with domestic violence or rape cases, if there is a context of Family Court dispute and relationship breakdown that might give some motivation to a false allegation that is something I would expect the defence to explore – and the CPS to bear in mind when making charging decisions.
But that is not all I disagree with. Marilyn complains that the assumption behind this initiative is that women are the victims and men are the guilty parties. From where I’m standing the only one making gender based assumptions is Marilyn, where she criticises women (not men you will note) for playing the victim and claiming they have been overborne by controlling partners. In my experience it cuts both ways – I’ve seen plenty of men and women claiming to be victims of violence or abuse – and a fair few of each gender where I have wondered if they are revelling too much in their status as victim rather too much, and where in taking on the role of victim they are able to control both court process and their “abusive” ex. The variety is infinite. I’ve seen cases where there is “mutual volatility”. I’ve seen cases where men are or claim to be victims of violence from mentally ill or alcoholic women (in my experience this is quite a common trope that is gendered – but that’s anecdotal) – and it is very hard to see whether the mental ill health / alcoholism is a) real and b) whether it is chicken or egg (cause or effect). I’ve seen cases where father’s appear to manipulate their status as a victim of gender prejudice to good effect too. It’s not my role as counsel to judge who is telling the truth (we pass that buck to the judge), although sometimes a hunch is inevitable – but some of these cases are more plausible than others, and some involve two parties who have each obviously experienced their role as one of victim – without being able to see their own abusive role in a mutually destructive relationship. The fact that one partner is abusive does not necessarily mean the other is not. So yes, I agree human relationships involve two agents and they are complicated and messy and difficult to capture in legislation – and I also agree that patterns of abusive behaviour are often gendered. But I don’t think that this legislation is gendered. If potential defendants are at risk of malicious allegations that will be as much a risk for female defendants.
It goes on…
Why would women behave in such a way? Perhaps it goes way back in their relationship. Perhaps their husband left them for somebody else or she fell out with them for some other transgression. A woman in such circumstances, if eaten up with anger or bitterness, may find herself very tempted to try and make life as difficult as possible for her ex, possibly using their children as a weapon and making allegations against him. She may even seriously believe the allegations she makes by the time they come to trial. A lie can be embellished and embroidered whilst the truth is lost in the mists of time.
This all happens. I’ve seen it a hundred times before. But about fifty of those times it was the other way around. Mums and dads use the kids as weapons ALL THE TIME.
I think it is worth saying that in my experience it is jolly hard to get findings of coercive control in the Family Court, even with the lower standard of proof and evidential flexibility of the Family Court. There are no doubt multilayered reasons for that, which I won’t go into here, but it does suggest that concern about the risk to poor maligned innocent husbands by their bitter witchy exes may be rather over-blown.
If a parent wishes to manipulate the system by making false or exaggerated allegations of domestic violence simply in order to secure legal aid (a perverse incentive of the legal aid cuts that I acknowledge) they have little need to put themselves through a criminal trial in order to do so. A non-molestation order will do the job – and the standard of proof is only the balance of probabilities. There is limited evidence to prove the hypothesis that the legal aid cuts have led to a surge in fabrication (stats showing an increase in non-mols merely show that more people are raising their DV – but it doesn’t show that the allegations they raise are necessarily fabricated).
Call me a feminazi if you like (for sure somebody will), but Marilyn does women a disservice in implying that they are the sole or primary perpetrators of abuse by means of malicious allegations – even if she does specifically acknowledge that most people tell the truth. This stereotypical spiteful ex-wife does exist – I’ve represented her, I’ve been on the other side. But the use of this gender stereotype in isolation in order to illustrate the discriminatory nature of a piece of legislation is beyond ironic.
Men and women are equally capable, in my experience, of being utterly vile, selfish and abusive – and they lie and manipulate in equal measure. The different genders may tend to exercise control in different ways – but I prefer to judge individuals on their actual behaviour not their gender. And I prefer to judge this law on the basis of our prejudices but on its performance when in force.