Pyschologically abusive bullies who inflict fear on others could face up to five years in prison and a fine, after a new domestic violence law came into force.
The amendment to the Serious Crime Bill finally recognises the power that can be exerted by perpetrators over their helpless victims, causing them endless anguish as they try to cope with their everyday lives.
If a victim suffers serious alarm or distress repeatedly, or fears violence will be used on them more than once, then they are seen to be subject to the offence of ‘coercive control.’
But is this recognition enough to tackle what is becoming a rapidly growing problem?
More than 3,000 such offences were recorded from January to November last year by South Yorkshire Police, and an average eight women a day are victims of domestic violence in the county.
Superintendent Natalie Shaw, South Yorkshire Police’s lead for domestic abuse, said: “Coercive control has always been known to be a significant element of domestic abuse but has never before been legally recognised.
“The new law fills a previous gap in legislation, which gives us another way to tackle the perpetrators of domestic abuse.
“Domestic abuse is wide ranging and not all abuse is clearly visible on first examination.
“Coercive control can be extremely damaging, and if physical signs of abuse are absent, it does not mean that someone is not a victim of domestic abuse.”
South Yorkshire Police was found to make tackling domestic abuse a ‘priority’ in an inspection by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in 2013, and all forces were made to produce a domestic abuse action plan.
Witness care units are also in place to provide practical help and support for both victims and witnesses while a victim’s needs are assessed to help them attend court.
Specialist domestic violence courts are also held across the region while independent advisors are able to support those most at risk during procedures and meetings.
Supt Shaw continued: “The new law regarding coercive control not only gives us the power to prosecute for this behaviour, but also enables people to reflect on their own relationships and think about whether their relationship is abusive.
“Whether you’re suffering emotional, psychological or physical abuse, I’d encourage you to report it to someone.
“If you don’t feel comfortable talking to police, there are support agencies and a wide range of charities you can speak to.
“Know that help is available and you do not have to suffer.”
Sheffield charity City Hearts, which helps and supports vulnerable women, also welcomed the law change.
A spokesman said: “In our Restore Programme for women with life controlling issues, we often see victims of domestic violence and the long term effects this has on their physical and emotional wellbeing.
“We are encouraged by the new domestic violence law where abusers can face up to five years in prison, and which recognises those who target and control spouses, partners and family members leading to psychological and emotional torment but stop short of violence.”
The law change was pushed through in December, the same month as a report by the police inspectorate which found that the number of reported crimes associated with domestic abuse increased by 31 per cent in 18 months.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary warned that specialist crime units could be overwhelmed – and called for an end to the postcode lottery where protection and support for victims vary widely across the country.
It also noted that there are inconsistent levels of awareness concerning coercive or controlling behaviour.
Agencies and health professionals are now pointing to the need for a consistent approach within the family court system.
It is said by experts that too often, abusers make use of psychological games and deceptions to manipulate those who make lasting judgements in complex cases.
Government guidance concerning the new domestic violence offence says: “Perpetrators can be particularly adept at manipulating professionals, agencies and systems, and may use a range of tactics in relation to this offence.”
The removal of legal aid for all but the most desperate family law cases could also have hindered the way to truth and justice.
In Doncaster, Doncaster Women’s Aid offers a confidential advice service on 01302 326411 or via firstname.lastname@example.org. The Sheffield Domestic Abuse Helpline is on 0808 8082241. Sheffield Council also provides links to other helplines on its websites.
To report domestic abuse call police on 101.