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What constitutes domestic assault, abuse or violence in the UK?

Domestic assault is difficult to define because there are no specific offences under UK law, whilst violence and abuse are notoriously challenging to measure accurately and demonstrate. That said if you are found guilty of domestic assault, the consequences could be severe. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), domestic abuse has risen by 24% in a year, whilst 4.2% of men and 7.9% of women suffered domestic abuse in the UK during 2018.

We’re highly experienced in navigating this complex area of law, and even though you’ll find various definitions online that may contradict one another, domestic assault generally refers to an incident (or pattern of incidents) of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading or violent behaviour, including sexual violence. In most cases, a partner or ex-partner commits the offence, but a family member or carer can also commit domestic assault.

What are the main types of domestic assault?

Due to the fact that there are no specific offences for domestic assault, abuse or domestic violence, each offence is attributed to a different area of criminal law, and this may include:

  • Common assault
  • ABH
  • GBH

In 2015, the government introduced an offence that criminalised the use of ‘controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship’ (through the Serious Crime Act 2015) in a bid to prevent emotional or psychological abuse in domestic scenarios. This can involve the following types of abuse:

  • Psychological
  • Physical
  • Sexual
  • Financial
  • Emotional

What constitutes physical domestic abuse?

Physical domestic abuse can be punching, slapping, hitting, biting, pinching, kicking, using a weapon or any other violent act that disrupts the comfort or health of an accuser. When this has occurred in a domestic setting; courts, magistrates and police are ordered to follow special guidelines to reduce the emotional trauma of such cases – which can affect children and other family members.

Acts of sexual abuse

These offences will also fall under the most relevant category, such as rape or indecent assault. As another complex area of law, legal guidelines recommend prosecutors and magistrates examine the actions of the offender – in an attempt to establish their motives and level of accountability.

Psychological, emotional and financial domestic abuse

It’s one of the reasons why the Serious Crime Act was introduced in 2015, as it finally prohibited the use of coercive or controlling behaviour within a familial environment. Examples can relate to psychological, emotional and financial abuse, such as:

  • Reading private emails
  • Taking control over certain aspects of an individual’s life, such as what they wear, who they can socialise with and when they can leave their property.
  • Withholding money preventing someone from earning money.


With varying ‘domestic assault’ offences, cases are attributed to the most relevant area of criminal law, meaning penalties can vary considerably. For example, restraining orders, occupation orders and Non-Molestation Orders (NMO) can be issued, whilst offences involving serious violence, or where the emotional/psychological harm caused is severe, will warrant a custodial sentence in the majority of cases.

If you are accused of domestic assault or have recognised domestic abuse in your relationship, it’s vital to seek specialist legal advice as soon as possible. We have a team of criminal defence experts on hand to help, and we can advise you on your legal rights and talk through your options.

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