Domestic Abuse bill making coercive control an offence will be ‘landmark moment’

A key part of the new Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill, which comes into law a week today, is the issue of coercive control, which will finally become a criminal offence.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 25th March 2019, 3:32 pm
Updated Monday, 25th March 2019, 3:38 pm

“I wasn’t allowed to switch my mobile phone off. The line had to be kept open all the time so he could hear what I was doing and where I was. Sometimes the call would last 16 hours.”

“He would get up during the night while I was asleep and move my car, so I began to think I was going mad because I couldn’t find it.”

“We had a joint bank account and he would give me money. He had taken my bank card and wouldn’t let me use it. He said he was better at being in control of money than me.”

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A new domestic abuse bill will make coercive control an offence.

Women who have been victims of coercive control, tell these stories to Scottish Women’s Aid counsellors. They talk of a feeling of suffocation from being constantly watched, of being held hostage in their own homes, and of doubting their sanity.

They tell of living in fear of the potential consequences of not doing what they’re told – even if it meant enforced prostitution, of only being allowed to walk around their home backwards, or eating from a dog’s bowl.

Humiliated, powerless, vulnerable... the psychological scars of living with an abuser who does not throw a punch but who deliberately dismantles and degrades a woman’s personality and identity, may be invisible but, unlike physical scars, they do not fade.

Coercive controlling abuse of this nature is about to become a criminal offence in Scotland.

A week today the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill, which was passed in the Scottish Parliament last year, will finally come into force. For the first time it makes domestic abuse a specific crime, and includes psychological abuse as well as the physical.

When the Bill passed in Parliament, Nicola Sturgeon said it was proof that Scotland had come “a long way from believing that domestic abuse is only a physical act.” She said: “The truth is that the psychological scars left by emotional abuse can have devastating effects on victims, and this government will work hard to make sure perpetrators face the justice they deserve.”

Since then Police Scotland has been training officers in how to recognise and effectively respond to the signs of coercive and controlling behaviours. Similarly, Scotland’s judges and sheriffs have been receiving training from Scottish Women’s Aid about the impact this intangible abuse can have on victims.

Certainly SWA believes the legislation is now the “gold standard”. More than that, says chief executive Dr Marsha Scott, it will “change Scotland forever”.

“Yes, it’s that big,” she says. “Domestic abuse isn’t just a problem – it’s one of the biggest problems we face. One in four women experience it – and that’s probably under-estimated – and so one in four men perpetrate it.

“For too long it’s always been thought of as physical abuse and many women have not been able to explain what their lives are like when they’re with a controlling partner. Many don’t think of it as abuse because it’s not being physically hurt. When they pick up the phone for help, they are really questioning what’s happening to them, because they can’t even explain it properly to themselves, but they just know it’s not right.

“This Bill makes that kind of abuse criminal for the first time. It sends a message that not only is it unacceptable, it is criminal and if the police and prosecutors and courts respond appropriately it will have a major impact. It will make Scotland be the type of country it wants to be – the most safe, the most free for women and children.”

Right now, figures suggest that Scottish police officers respond to a call about domestic abuse every nine minutes – and more over festive periods.

But Scott, and others at charities such as SafeLives, believe that the full spectrum of domestic abuse, including coercive control, needs to be tackled to ensure real change for Scottish women. The legislation is one way of ensuring that women can recognise the patterns of abuse within a relationship.

Scott adds: “I think we have the best policing for domestic abuse in Europe, probably in the world, though it is still far from good enough, but they have made huge steps over the last ten years. Being able to run training sessions with judges is another major breakthrough – it has really opened eyes to what coercive control is and how it presents itself.”

To make people aware of the legal changes, the Scottish Government will launch a media campaign over the next few weeks. And like Scott, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf believes that April 1 will be a landmark moment.

“Psychological abuse can have a devastating and long-lasting impact on survivors. It is a form of abuse that is often hidden, but can rob victims of their confidence, self-esteem and safety,” he says. “I want to be clear that this behaviour is absolutely unacceptable. We will continue to take steps to safeguard those who are at risk and to prosecute those who engage in abusive behaviour.”

He adds: “Scotland is leading the way with this new legislation... it will strengthen the power of police and prosecutors to hold perpetrators to account.

“This is also the first piece of legislation in the UK to contain a specific statutory sentencing aggravation to reflect the harm that can be caused to children growing up in an environment where domestic abuse takes place.”

Without doubt coercive control is an insidious crime. Scott says it tends to start slowly. Women are isolated from families and friends. They are made to doubt everything about themselves, told they’re not bright enough to be able to have their own money, or not trustworthy enough to be left alone.

“And women just don’t recognise it for what it is,” she says. “The warning sign is that it just doesn’t feel right. It’s a crime which takes women’s freedom away from them. It’s a micro-management of their lives.

“The control of a mobile phone is really common, and of the bank account. One woman told me she received 100 texts in the space of an hour. Another that he would always check the mileage in her car, another woman said he would get up in the middle of the night and move her car so she thought she was losing her mind.

“It’s all about entitlement and power and a lot of men won’t think they’re doing something wrong. Well now they’ll find they are and they will be prosecuted for it.”

To seek help for domestic abuse, call Scotland’s Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 027 1234.