CRIME FILE: Domestic abuse may be classed as crime

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A NEW law is being proposed that seeks to formalise recognition of the effects of domestic abuse including and beyond those of physical violence, and to specifically address the issue within relationships.

The UK Government has announced that it is seeking views on whether the current law on domestic abuse needs to be strengthened to offer better protection to victims.

Its consultation on the issue - which continues until October 15 - focuses on whether a specific offence should be created that "captures patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour in intimate relationships, in line with the Government's non-statutory definition of domestic abuse."

Such abuse is rightly a high profile issue, with 269,700 related crimes reported to the police in the last year, according to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC).

And a key aim of any change to the law as a result of the current consultation will be to try to improve the performance of police forces with regard to dealing with domestic abuse.

A HMIC report into improving police responses to domestic abuse reported earlier this year that there remain failings, including a lack of leadership and direction, and poor victim care. Arrest rates vary considerably, and the Home Office's consultation document does not hold back in concluding: "Put simply, police officers failed to see domestic abuse as a serious crime."

That is not to say there are not examples of good practice among police forces in dealing with domestic abuse - but approach and outcomes vary considerably across England and Wales' 43 forces.

Currently, the UK Government defines domestic abuse as "any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality."

Behaviour covered by this definition includes "a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish or frighten their victim."

A broader question being asked through the consultation is whether the creation of a specific crime in relation to domestic abuse would remove any ambiguity, and provide more clarity for police forces regarding their powers to intervene.

Domestic abuse is not just about physical violence but psychological and emotional abuse, often over considerable periods of time - abuse that can leave its victims isolated from from family and friends, and with no money or even basic freedoms.

"The terrifying reality is that for the most part these appalling crimes happen behind closed doors," said Home Secretary Theresa May.

"We must bring domestic abuse out into the open and send a clear message that it is wrong to put your partner or your family in fear."

Welsh Women's Aid (WWA) has campaigned for many years for the law to fully recognise the role and effects of coercive controlling behaviour within domestic abuse, and has welcomed the Home Office consultation is a step in the right direction.

It has pointed out that domestic violence is prosecuted under a range of separate offences that include grievous bodily harm, stalking, rape and sexual assault, but there is no single offence of domestic abuse, that recognises that its physical effects are part of the wider pattern of controlling behaviour used by perpetrators.

This pattern is the ‘coercive control’ that last year the Home Office included in an amended definition of domestic abuse. But this is a definition that is not enshrined in law.

WWA believes that criminalising coercive control will allow women who experience domestic violence to seek police support, as well as helping the criminal justice system to be able to link repeated incidents of physical violence by the same perpetrator.

“We welcome the news that the UK Government is consulting on criminalising coercive control as a positive step towards acknowledging the full reality of domestic abuse for victims, which is not just a one-off incident of violence, but an insidious pattern of controlling behaviour,” said Gill Owens, WWA director of operations.

“Currently, two women a week are murdered as a result of domestic abuse, so new tools to allow the police to intervene and prosecute are an important step towards protecting victims and preventing these terrible crimes, as well as allowing people to better understand the reality of what domestic abuse really is.”

The UK Government consultation asks interested parties to respond to the following questions:

* Does the current law adequately provide sufficient protection to victims of domestic abuse?

* In what ways could the law be strengthened?

* How would any changes you suggest be practically implemented?

* Does the current law sufficiently capture the Government's non-statutory definition of domestic abuse?

The consultation document can be found by following the 'consultations' link at www.gov.uk/government/organisations/home-office

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