A new criminal offence of domestic abuse that covers non-violent behaviour is being put out to consultation by the Government.
Abuse victims whose partners cause psychological harm by threatening them with violence, cutting them off from friends and family or refusing them access to money in order to limit their freedom could be protected by a new law.
The consultation, launched by Home Secretary Theresa May, asks whether the law needs to be strengthened in order to provide better protection to domestic abuse victims by spelling out that domestic abuse can be emotional and psychological as well as physical.
Under existing law, non-violent coercive and controlling behaviour is covered by legislation that covers stalking and harassment but this does not explicitly apply to intimate relationships.
Women’s Aid, the charity that works to end domestic violence, said the change would give victims greater confidence to speak out sooner.
Polly Neate, Women’s Aid chief executive, said: “This is a vital step forward for victims of domestic violence. Two women a week are killed by domestic violence, and in our experience of working with survivors, coercive controlling behaviour is at the heart of the most dangerous abuse.”
She added: “We look forward to working closely with the Home Office, the police, and the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure this change gives victims greater confidence to speak out sooner, and perpetrators of domestic violence are identified and dealt with more swiftly and effectively.”
Earlier this year, the Home Secretary announced she would chair a new national monitoring group following a damning report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) that found thousands of domestic violence victims were being failed by police forces across England and Wales.
Inspectors said only eight out of the 43 forces responded well to domestic abuse and the most vulnerable victims faced a “lottery” in the way their complaints were handled.
Poor attitudes, ineffective training and inadequate evidence-gathering were all heavily criticised by the watchdog, which called for an urgent shake-up of the response to domestic abuse – from frontline officers up to police chiefs.
The Government already defines domestic abuse as including non-violent behaviour, such as humiliation, intimidation or acts that are used to harm, punish or frighten the victim.
The Home Secretary said: “The Government is clear that abuse is not just physical. Victims who are subjected to a living hell by their partners must have the confidence to come forward.
“Meanwhile, I want perpetrators to be in no doubt that their cruel and controlling behaviour is criminal.
“We will look at the results of this consultation carefully in order to continue providing the best possible protection and support for victims of domestic abuse.”
The Government has also introduced the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme, known as Clare’s Law after 36-year-old Clare Wood who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 2009, which enables the police to disclose information about previous violent offending by a partner.
And the introduction earlier this year of Domestic Violence Protection Orders means that perpetrators of domestic abuse can be prevented from returning to the home for up to 28 days.
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said: “We’ve called for the law on domestic violence to be strengthened for some time and have pledged new legislation in the first Queen’s Speech of a Labour Government.
“The criminal justice system needs to recognise the damage done by repeated psychological abuse and coercive control which is too often overlooked – the Government’s agreement to this consultation is a welcome tribute to those who have campaigned hard for change.
“But Theresa May just isn’t doing enough to reverse the backwards slide in action against domestic violence or support for victims on her watch.
“Under this Government, refuges across the country are cutting services and many are threatened with closure.
“Prosecutions and convictions as a proportion of recorded domestic crime are falling. And over the last four years over 10,000 perpetrators of domestic violence have been handed only community resolutions, with many simply being asked to apologise to their victim.”