On 29th December 2015, s76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 came into force.
Section 76 creates a new offence of “coercive or controlling behaviour” which is a crime punishable by hefty fines and/or up to five years imprisonment.
The intention is that abuse which has previously fallen short of being a criminal offence will now be caught by this section of the Act, bringing relief to thousands of victims who suffer within an intimate or family relationship. Previously perpetrators of this kind of abuse have escaped the arms of the criminal law even though they may have found themselves on the receiving end of a civil “non-molestation” order (often referred to as an injunction or restraining order). Civil injunctions are widely used to stop abuse of this nature and once made, breach of a non-molestation order amounts to a criminal offence and sentencing can include a custodial sentence of up to five years.
In a situation where the applicant is in serious danger, an application can be made to the civil court without giving any notice to the alleged perpetrator. If the application is successful then a non-molestation order can be made on the same day, providing the applicant with immediate protection.
Under s76 of the new Act, the behaviour in question must include a pattern of threats, humiliation and/or intimidation. This could include controlling the other person to the extent that they cannot socialise with friends and family, are dictated to about what they should wear and how they should use their social media accounts, fitting a tracking device to their car etc. Under this Act, if as a result of the behaviour, a person has feared that violence will be used towards them on at least two occasions, or the behaviour has caused them serious alarm or distress such that it has had a substantial effect on their usual daily life, then it will fall within the criminal standard of “abuse”. At the time of writing it’s too early to say what the likely timescale for criminal proceedings will be or how quickly protection will be provided for the victim.
As a family lawyer it’s common for behaviour like this to be included in a divorce petition and given as the reason for a marriage breaking down. Sadly many of these people do not even recognise they are in an abusive relationship, thinking that unless they are the victim of physical violence, they are not being abused. They may describe their partner as someone who “plays with their mind” or who has a jealous nature, but they become so isolated that however unhappy they are, they become more fearful of leaving the relationship than staying.
Although being a valid reason for demonstrating that a marriage has broken down, behaviour of this nature has never constituted a criminal offence and neither has it impacted on the financial outcome of a case, save in very exceptional circumstances.
The Act is welcome news and I hope that with the powers it creates, more will also be done to educate victims of abuse and provide the reassurance they need that steps can be taken to help them.
If you would like to find out more about protection from domestic abuse then please contact Elizabeth Bettes on 0118 9575337 (Reading office) or Sandra Marshall on 01344 887510 (Windsor office).
Published on 19/01/2016