Lawyers and Judges who deal with cases in the Family Court are very familiar with the kinds of controlling behaviours often used within abusive intimate relationships. Domestic abuse does not only mean physical violence; in fact, there are many cases where direct violence is never used. Name-calling, threats, constant criticism, undermining self-esteem, controlling your finances, telling you who you can and cannot talk to or associate with, constantly checking up on you, or telling you what to wear can all be ways that a partner uses to psychologically control you. This can be very damaging and upsetting, but it is often difficult to recognise that your own partner is abusing you in this way.
This kind of behaviour has now been made a criminal offence. Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 is as follows:
Controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship
(1) A person (A) commits an offence if—
(a) A repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards another person (B) that is controlling or coercive,
(b) at the time of the behaviour, A and B are personally connected,
(c) the behaviour has a serious effect on B, and
(d) A knows or ought to know that the behaviour will have a serious effect on B.
(2) A and B are “personally connected” if—
(a) A is in an intimate personal relationship with B, or
(b) A and B live together and—
(i) they are members of the same family, or
(ii) they have previously been in an intimate personal relationship with each other.
(3) But A does not commit an offence under this section if at the time of the behaviour in question—
(a) A has responsibility for B, for the purposes of Part 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 (see section 17 of that Act), and
(b) B is under 16.
(4) A’s behaviour has a “serious effect” on B if—
(a) it causes B to fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against B, or
(b) it causes B serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on B’s usual day-to-day activities.
(5) For the purposes of subsection (1)(d) A “ought to know” that which a reasonable person in possession of the same information would know.
(6) For the purposes of subsection (2)(b)(i) A and B are members of the same family if—
(a) they are, or have been, married to each other;
(b) they are, or have been, civil partners of each other;
(c) they are relatives;
(d) they have agreed to marry one another (whether or not the agreement has been terminated);
(e) they have entered into a civil partnership agreement (whether or not the agreement has been terminated);
(f) they are both parents of the same child;
(g) they have, or have had, parental responsibility for the same child.
(7) In subsection (6)—
“civil partnership agreement” has the meaning given by section 73 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004;
“child” means a person under the age of 18 years;
“parental responsibility” has the same meaning as in the Children Act 1989;
“relative” has the meaning given by section 63(1) of the Family Law Act 1996.
(8) In proceedings for an offence under this section it is a defence for A to show that—
(a) in engaging in the behaviour in question, A believed that he or she was acting in B’s best interests, and
(b) the behaviour was in all the circumstances reasonable.
(9) A is to be taken to have shown the facts mentioned in subsection (8) if—
(a) sufficient evidence of the facts is adduced to raise an issue with respect to them, and
(b) the contrary is not proved beyond reasonable doubt.
(10) The defence in subsection (8) is not available to A in relation to behaviour that causes B to fear that violence will be used against B.
(11) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable—
(a) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years, or a fine, or both;
(b) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or a fine, or both.
This means that if your partner (or former partner) behaves repeatedly or continuously in a way which is controlling or coercive towards you, and this has a serious effect on you, they may be guilty of a criminal offence. The effect on you is serious is it causes you to fear on at least two occasions that violence will be used against you, or if it causes you serious alarm or distress which affects your day-to-day life.
If you believe that you are or have been in a relationship like this, you may want to consider reporting this to the police. Alternatively, there are other organisations which can help, such as Women’s Aid. You can find more contact details on our Useful Links page. Women’s Aid have produced very useful guidance to help parents to recognise if their teenager is in a controlling relationship (as domestic abuse can begin at a young age). This guidance is also very helpful to show some of the types of controlling and coercive behaviour that abusive partners use. You can download it here.
You can also seek protection from the Family Court. A non-molestation order is an order which can stop your partner from threatening or abusing you, and may be used to make sure they stay a safe distance away from you and your home. If you live together, an occupation order can be used to make sure that your partner needs to leave your home and live somewhere else. These orders can be made on an urgent basis, sometimes without even telling your partner before the case comes to court.
It is also important to remember that if you are in a relationship like this and have children, exposing the children to this kind of behaviour can be very upsetting for them and potentially damaging in the long term. You might want to consider how it is best for your children to spend time with your partner if you choose to separate.
You can find more information in the ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIPS section of our Information Centre.