I have been training law enforcement professionals for the best part of twenty years, highlighting through my research and analysis (‘Getting Away With It: A Profile of the Domestic Abuse Sexual Offenders and Serious Offenders’ 2004 that these are the most dangerous of cases. I always underline the power and control behaviours and tactics used by abusers and connect the learning to all the murder cases that have happened over the years, such as Clare Bernal who was stalked and murdered in 2005 in London and Jane Clough who was stalked and murdered in 2010 in Lancashire.
Most of the professionals, by the end of the training session understand that coercive control is a pattern of behaviour used by perpetrators. Many of them have told me that the cases and pictures of the women and girls I highlight and show, those who were no longer alive to tell their stories, stayed with them and made them want to do their jobs better. Yet, they would leave my classroom and when called to a ‘domestic’ they would attend ‘the incident’ and look for the physical evidence to prove ‘the incident’.
This was a major problem, not easily remedied. I well understood that we could change the hearts and minds of professionals so that they take domestic abuse seriously and we could educate people about how to identify abuse and risk. However, the legislative framework was outdated and flawed and would need to catch up as it failed to recognize the very essence and reality of domestic abuse.
Having successfully campaigned to change the law on stalking, resulting in a new offence of stalking in 2012, I knew it was possible to lobby for a new coercive control offence, but we would need to highlight the criminalization gaps and place the victim’s voices at the center of the campaign, just as we did with stalking.
In fact, there was a direct nexus between the two and I firmly believe that had we not changed the law on stalking it would have been even more challenging to successfully campaign for the coercive control law.
They are both patterns of behavior, much of which is about the psychological impact it has on the victim
Moreover, many of the behaviours used in stalking are used to coercively control someone whilst in a relationship. Ironically, the same behaviours on separation are called stalking and it was deemed to be a crime. Any pre-separation non-physical behaviour was ignored – namely the police said there was nothing they could do, as it was not a crime.
It made no sense that the moment of break-up became legally meaningful, particularly given that this is the most dangerous time for a woman. Why wait for behaviour to escalate and criminalize it on separation? My research highlighted that 76% of murders happen on separation and The Femicide Census in England and Wales (2016) revealed that this has remained static. Furthermore, I estimate that about 80% happen in the first four months. Separation is the most dangerous time for a woman and it takes on average seven times to leave an abuser. It is with finality, when they have finally left, that behaviour can escalate to serious harm and murder and by then it is too late.
To compound matters, in order to use the stalking law, the behaviour must be uninterrupted i.e the back and forth of separation (largely owing to emotional investment, financial entrapment and children) renders it unprosecutable – namely the stalking law cannot be used.
We presented this evidence to the Home Office arguing that the law can criminalise a course of conduct and can move beyond physical injury – but it is selective. We highlighted that it needed to apply to violence in intimate relationships, as it does to stalking, given their fundamental similarity. Stalking laws criminalise a course of conduct, target patterns and address a broad range of harm. In these important respects, stalking legislation was useful when considering violence in intimate relationships.
And so it became even more pressing to close this criminalization gap to better protect victims and ensure early intervention and prevention, particularly given the research that shows coercive control and stalking correlates significantly with murder and I have been tracking case after case. At least two women are murdered by their ex(partner) every week in the UK. In the US a woman is murdered every sixteen hours by their (ex) partner and this does not include the suicides caused by entrapment and domestic abuse. This is a pandemic.
Set against this backdrop we showed that the UK laws were failing victims. 98% of victims said that law reform was needed
97% of professionals said coercive control should be recognized in law
I firmly believe that closing down criminalization gaps and ensuring the legislative framework reflects the reality of domestic violence in all its guises is in everyone’s interest.
Other countries are now following suit and criminalizing coercive control. I am hopeful America and Australia will be next.
More about our domestic abuse law reform campaign