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Coercive control has now been criminalised as an offence under The Serious Crime Act 2015, which received royal assent in March 2015. 

Under section 76 (1) of the Act ‘a person (A) commits an offence if: 
(a) A repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards another person (B) that is controlling or coercive,
(b) at the time of the behaviour, A and B are personally connected,
(c) the behaviour has a serious effect on B, and 
(d) A knows or ought to know that the behaviour will have a serious effect on B.’

This criminalisation of psychologically abusive behaviour provides an important legal protection to domestic abuse victims, who have previously been left vulnerable when suffering from such non-physical abuse. The legislation is also undoubtedly an important step in ensuring that this particular form of abuse is more readily recognised and taken more seriously by criminal justice agencies such as the police, which have been reported to respond inadequately to non-violent abuse. There is also the hope that criminalising coercive control will ‘help victims identify the behaviour they are suffering as wrong and encourage them to report it, [as well as] cause perpetrators to rethink their controlling behaviour.’ See the government’s consultation on Strengthening the Law on Domestic Abuse

However, despite the introduction of this legislation being a positive step forward in combatting domestic abuse, I would suggest that a more concerted, holistic and multi-faceted approach needs to be taken in order to truly begin to tackle domestic abuse. One significant aspect of such an approach is to ensure that victims can effectively make use of the range of existing legal protections available. Therefore I believe the government needs to amend its position in relation to the availability of legal aid for victims of domestic abuse accessing family law remedies and civil protections. In order to obtain legal aid, not only do domestic violence victims need to provide evidence that they cannot afford legal bills, they must also provide evidence that they or their children have been victims of domestic violence in the two years preceding their application. This evidence can take numerous forms including; a letter from a health professional, previous/current residence in a refuge, and a conviction or police caution for the perpetrator. Many women however, cannot provide such evidence.  

Indeed the Rights of Women organisation found that ‘38% of women who were victims of domestic violence had none of the forms of evidence required to qualify for legal aid’. As such, the Justice Select Committee report on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, has recommended ‘the introduction of an additional ‘catch-all’ clause giving the Legal Aid Agency discretion to grant legal aid to a victim of domestic violence who does not fit within the current criteria.’ This is certainly something that needs to be given urgent consideration to ensure that all victims can access the legal protection and remedies that they need. 

Another significant issue is ensuring that support services have the investment and funding that they require in order to provide support for victims. Although the government has committed £10 million to prevent the closure of specialist refuges, more funding support is still required to meet the demand upon services. Indeed, a recent report published by Safe Lives found that ‘there are just under 500 IDVAs working with high-risk victims across England and Wales, 930 IDVAs are needed to support all high-risk victims…so we have just half the IDVA capacity we need.’ Although more women may now be protected by the criminal law with the introduction of the offence of coercive control, it is imperative that alongside criminal justice recourse they can also access the support services that they need, and that the supply of these services meets the demand.

By introducing the offence of coercive control, the government is sending a clear message that it recognises the importance of the issue of domestic abuse. However, in order to truly tackle this still-hidden crime, it is imperative that this positive action extends beyond simply changing the law, to ensure that victims can access and receive the protection and support that they need and deserve. 

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