Domestic abuse and coronavirus: what legally counts as domestic abuse in Scotland as helpline sees 20% fall in calls during lockdown

The coronavirus lockdown has seen a fall of around 20 per cent in the number of calls for help to Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline

Tuesday, 7th April 2020, 1:34 pm
Updated Tuesday, 28th April 2020, 10:08 am

The figures for Scotland are in stark contrast to a 25 per cent increase in the number of people contacting the UK-wide National Domestic Abuse helpline.

By comparison, calls and online requests for help have fallen, although it is not yet understood why the picture is so different in Scotland.

Here’s why the coronavirus lockdown may have led to more calls related to domestic violence - and what legally counts as abuse under the most recent guidelines.

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Calls and online requests for help to Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline have fallen by a fifth during lockdown (Photo: Shutterstock)

Why are domestic abuse calls rising in the UK?

Domestic support charity Refuge reported an increase in calls to the UK-wide National Domestic Abuse hotline during a five-period from the week beginning 30 March, just seven days after the Prime Minister introduced the tough restrictions on movement.

People across the UK have been urged to remain in their homes, unless it is for essential or urgent medical reasons.

The charity also said that visits to its website had also surged by 150 per cent in the same period.

Domestic abuse campaigners warned that the lockdown restrictions could heighten domestic tensions and restrict the ability to leave a potentially abusive situation.

Pressure on other services and awareness campaigns could have also led to the increase, according to the charity.

Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge, warned that self-isolation has the potential to “aggravate pre-existing abuse behaviours”, and that spending concentrated periods of time together could potentially escalate the threat of abuse.

Morley also emphasised that domestic abuse is not necessarily always physical, but can be emotional and psychological too, including threatening and coercive behaviour.

Why is it different in Scotland?

Scotland has seen around a 20 per cent reduction in contacts by comparison to England, but as yet it can only be speculated as to why this may be.

A spokeswoman for Scottish Women’s Aid said: “Purely speculatively, it may be that women don't want to reach out when an abuser is in the home or when children are at home.

“However, we do have the web chat and email functions as well that don't require the person to speak out loud, so it won't purely be that.

“We don't have data yet on the demand for local Women's Aid groups and what they have been observing at the frontline in delivery of support.

“When we do we'll get a better picture of what demand for domestic abuse support is actually like just now.”

What counts as domestic abuse?

Last year, a new law came into force that now makes emotional abuse within a relationship illegal.

The law recognises that domestic abuse can take several forms, rather than restricting it to physical violence, and doesn’t consider it as being a one-off incident, but rather a pattern of control, intimidation and humiliation by a partner or ex-partner.

Changes to Scotland’s Domestic Abuse Act came into force on 1 April 2019, making psychological abusive behaviours a crime in Scotland.

Under the new legislation, offenders can now face up to 14 years in prison for coercive and controlling behaviour.

The changes were voted through by Scottish Parliament in January 2018, making psychological abuse and coercive control illegal.

When could your partner’s behaviour be breaking the law?

The legislative changes now make the following 10 acts towards a partner illegal:

1. Sharing intimate or sexually explicit images of you - either online or not

So-called 'revenge porn' is about power, control and humiliation and was made illegal in Scotland in 2016 through the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm Act.

It is described by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service as a form of 'online domestic abuse', which is "designed to cause fear, alarm or distress, and often used to humiliate, threaten and control the victim".

It is now illegal for someone to share intimate photographs of you with anyone, whether that is on or offline.

2. Restricting your access to money

Even if your partner earns more, the law says that one partner cannot stop the other from accessing money.

According to Women's Aid, this is a common tactic of abusers because if their partner is dependent on them, it helps them to gain more control.

3. Repeatedly putting you down

Constant insults from a partner might not be typically thought of as domestic abuse, but under the new law, persistent name-calling, mocking and other forms of insulting behaviour are now illegal.

This behaviour is designed to destroy a person's confidence and make them feel worthless.

4. Stopping you from seeing friends or family

If your partner continually isolates you from the people you love - either by monitoring or blocking your phone calls, emails, or social media, telling you where you can or cannot go, or stopping you from seeing your friends or relatives - this is recognised as controlling behaviour and is against the law.

Women's Aid said that one of the most common ways abusers often do this is by acting jealous and accusing their partner of cheating on them, or loving others more than them.

5. Scaring you

Physical violence isn't the only way to scare someone. Your partner might not physically assault you, but if they are doing enough to frighten you, they are committing an offence.

Women's Aid says this can include, but is not limited to:

- Blocking you by standing in the way, or using physical size to intimidate

- Making angry gestures

- Shouting at you or whispering things they know will scare you

- Ruining your possessions

- Breaking things

- Punching walls

- Wielding a knife or a gun

6. Threatening you

Making threats to control you is a form of abuse.

This can include, but is not limited to:

- Threatening to reveal your secrets or private things about you

- Threats of self-harm or suicide

- Threats to kill or harm you, your children (if any), or pets

- Threatening to spread lies about you to friends, family, employers or your community

7. Forcing you to obey their rules

A relationship should be a partnership, with neither partner having control over the other.

If you are forced to abide by rules set by your partner, it could mean they are committing a crime.

By having lots of strict rules and punishing, or threatening to punish you if you disobey, abusers get even more control over you and your behaviour, says Women's Aid.

8. Controlling how you look

This can include repeatedly telling you what to wear or not to wear, telling you how to wear your hair, wanting you to lose or gain weight, and giving you no choice in the matter.

How you look is not something your partner should, or should want to, control.

9. Using your child (if any) to control, threaten or intimidate you

This can include, but is not limited to:

- Putting you down in front of a child to humiliate you

- Threatening violence towards a child to control or frighten you

- Using a child to spy on your day-to-day activities

- Being abusive in the presence of a child

Harsher penalties could also be imposed if the abusive behaviour is likely to negatively impact on a child living in such an environment.

This could include a negative effect on their well-being or development.

10. Making you doubt your own sanity

This is sometimes called 'gaslighting' and is designed to make you doubt your own reality.

It can involve lying, manipulating situations or people, or denying that things have happened to stop you from being able to trust yourself and your judgement of a situation.

If you are scared of your partner, or worried about someone you know, contact Scotland's 24-hour Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline on 0800 027 1234.