A guide to coercive control and murder
Domestic abuse is not always physical. Coercive control relates to ongoing psychological behaviour, such as patterns of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation. It became a crime in December 2015 and can be defined as controlling behaviour that has a "serious effect" on a partner, causing them to fear violence at least twice or instigating serious distress. Making coercive control an offence was a huge step forward in terms of tackling domestic abuse. Karen Bradley, the Minister for Preventing Abuse and Exploitation (at the time of coercive control becoming law) stated:
“No one should live in fear of domestic abuse, which is why this government has made ending violence against women and girls a priority. Our new coercive or controlling behaviour offence will protect victims who would otherwise be subjected to sustained patterns of abuse that can lead to total control of their lives by the perpetrator.”
Recent figures from the Office of National Statistics show that recorded coercive control offences has doubled, with 9,053 offences recorded in the year ending March 2018, and by March 2019 this increased to 17,616 offences. That said, research by The Conversation, identified that just 16% of coercive control cases (over an 18-month period) resulted in a charge, yet the Crown Prosecution Service has introduced measures to boost conviction rates, with pilot projects in London, Nottingham and Yorkshire (since 2016), including:
- Ensuring victims have the opportunity to visit court before any trial to familiarise themselves with surroundings.
- Allowing victims (as long as the courts permit) to give evidence from behind a screen.
- Offering separate courthouse entrances for victims and offenders where possible, as well as childcare facilities.
- Improved support from an independent domestic abuse advisor (IDVA).
How do you know if it’s happening to you?
Coercive control can take on many different forms but some of the common examples include:
- Isolating individuals from friends and family members
- Depriving food drinks and everyday products
- Having social media accounts monitored or controlled
- Monitoring time and stalking movements
- Unreasonable demands
- Having money taken away or controlled
- Acts that are designed to humiliate, degrade or dehumanise
- Being threatened with violence if they do not behave in a certain way
- Being stopped from working or studying
- Demanding obedience
Coercive control carries a maximum sentence of 5 years, a fine or both. For an offence to be recognised as coercive control, the perpetrator and victim must be ‘personally connected’ with an intimate or family relationship. Coercive control can have many negative effects, such as:
- Social isolation
- Loss of self-esteem and self-confidence
- Physical and psychological damage
- Loss of status as an independent adult
- Loss of sense of self and personal autonomy
It’s important to understand that harm caused by coercion or control over a sustained period of time can be more harmful than a single act of domestic violence, however, it’s not necessarily easy to prove, especially when the patterns of abuse involve the perpetrator isolating a victim from family and friends. A study of Merseyside Police domestic abuse data found that 95% of coercive control victims were women and 74% of perpetrators were men. The research also stated that 76% of coercive control cases occurred within an intimate partner context.
Coercive control as a defence to murder
Diminished responsibility has been a long-standing defence to murder and though it is not a complete defence like self-defence, it can help reduce a murder charge to manslaughter, resulting in a less severe sentence. The Sally Challen appeal was the first time coercive and controlling behaviour contributed to the decision of the Court of Appeal to overturn a murder conviction. Salle Challen was jailed for life in 2011 for killing her husband in a hammer attack, but having served 9 years, she was able to walk free from court in February 2019. The decision to reduce her conviction to manslaughter was made following fresh evidence provided by a psychiatrist, proving she was suffering from two mental disorders at the time of the killing. The judge, Mr Justice Edis said:
“Allowing full credit of one-third because it has always been your case that you killed him by reasons of diminished responsibility, that means you have already served an equivalent sentence and are therefore entitled by law to be released at once.”
As a high-profile case, the decision to order a retrial can offer hope to future cases with similarities; however, it’s essential for juries to be clearly informed about the impact of coercive control on victims. Therefore defendants must present sufficient evidence to raise an issue in respect of the ‘loss of control’ defence, showing they were subjected to coercive control leading up to, and resulting in, the fatal incident. This groundbreaking case shed light on a previous lack of understanding around coercive control and the devastating effects it can have.
If you believe you are the victim of coercive control or are worried about the consequences, it’s best to get in touch with our friendly team for professional advice. Our specially trained solicitors can guide you through your options and help you end the distress. We have handled a wide range of coercive control cases, helping to resolve situations as quickly as possible. To find out more about us and how we can help, please call 07000 81 82 83 or send us a message and we’ll be back in touch as soon as possible.
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