The recent allegations faced by Ryan Giggs, and other high-profile cases, have cast a spotlight on ‘coercive control’ in a relationship and what it means.
The legal definition of what constitutes domestic abuse was broadened in 2013 to recognise and include actions of emotional abuse, such that domestic abuse is now defined as ‘an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual violence, in the majority of cases by a partner or ex-partner but also by a family member or carer’.
Coercive control itself is defined as ‘an act or pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish or frighten’. Controlling behaviour is designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, depriving somebody of their independence and regulating their behaviours. In effect isolating them from other family, or people they could turn to for help or guidance, giving the perpetrator complete control over their lives.
What help is available from the courts?
Coercive control in an intimate or family relationship is a criminal offence and, if reported to police, can be prosecuted and restraining orders obtained. The difficulty a lot of the time, is the individual recognising that they are in fact being controlled. We see many examples of where this has taken place in a relationship, and it is only when highlighted to clients, that they realise the treatment that they were receiving was not acceptable.
In the family (civil) court, there are other measures of protection available. Injunctive measures are comprised of occupation orders, where the abusive party can be directed to vacate a property owned by them or in which they have an interest, even if the victim does not have a legal interest in the property but occupies it at their home. You then have non-molestation orders where carrying out any action set out in the order which causes the victim to feel harassed or threatened would be a breach of the order, which is a criminal offence. In proceedings for child arrangements, measures include prohibited steps orders or orders directing such conditions upon the child arrangements as may be necessary to protect the victim from risk of further abuse by the perpetrator.
How does the control take place?
There are many aspects of control, whether it is upon the freedom of the individual, but also often control over a victim’s finances, with the victim either denied access to funds which they have earned or otherwise qualified for or denied access to the ability to make a living for themselves and made solely reliant upon their abuser for their income.
In any separation following a marriage, the division of the assets needs to be considered. In these circumstances, the abuser’s conduct itself is unlikely to impact the way the assets are divided by the court, unless it is ‘exceptional’, but the solicitor still needs to be made aware of the dynamic. This is to enable them to manage the case so as to limit the influence the abuser can have upon the victim within the proceedings and to seek to ensure that any orders ultimately made by the court minimise the ability of the abuser to be difficult at the implementation stage. Interim orders can be obtained to give access to monies for a victim to live on and for them to have a litigation fund to pay their solicitor from, in certain circumstances.
Where parties have not been married there can be fewer immediate options available for a victim if they have been coerced into giving their own monies to their abuser but there are still options which may be pursued, such as claiming an interest in assets held in the other party’s sole name. A solicitor will firstly need to take a detailed account of how the arrangements came to exist, in order to advise further.
In terms of an individual facing their abuser in the court room, measures exist so that victims of abuse may not be cross examined at hearings by their abuser. In terms of appropriate case management, the solicitor can also act as the ‘buffer’ to communications received from the abuser and/or a solicitor acting on their behalf, under the abuser’s instruction.
In proceedings relating to children, in circumstances where domestic abuse is raised as an issue relevant to proceedings, Practice Direction 12J under the Family Procedure Rules is engaged and the court must consider appropriate measures to ensure the protection of both the victim and their children in the proceedings.
All litigation however, rests upon proving the allegations, which requires consideration of the evidence. The nature of coercive control is that it is an insidious process carried out over a lengthy period such that the victim often may not be aware that they have been subject to it. Judges in the family court are trained to understand that evidence of this type of abuse may require specific directions to ensure that the victim is in a position to present their case appropriately.
Is there funding support available?
A victim of coercive control may be eligible for legal aid funding as a victim of domestic violence. This should enable them access to a menu of options available to them to protect them as they separate from their abuser, at low or no fee for representation. Assessment for legal aid is carried out by the solicitor who holds the franchise to practice and legal aid firms can be located using this link https://find-legal-advice.justice.gov.uk/
In addition to legal support, there are also many charities who can provide advice to victims to support them through the emotional detachment and recovery of what they have been through. Here are some suggestions below: