New British Law Augments Domestic Abuse Definition To Include Psychological Harm

By John Lavitt 02/17/16

The new law will also protect people from social media coercion.

New British Law Expands Domestic Abuse Definition To Include Psychological Harm
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A potentially groundbreaking law in Great Britain has expanded the meaning of domestic abuse to include emotional or psychological harm that falls short of threats of physical violence. Under the new "coercive control" statute, people who spy on their loved ones online or attempt to control them via social media can now face up to five years in prison. Prior to this transformative addiction to the definition, police in Britain were only allowed to arrest someone for domestic abuse if the victim was assaulted or threatened with violence.

Passed by the House of Commons as part of a package of criminal justice reforms, the legislation is considered to be a game-changing victory for domestic violence campaigners. Despite the positive ramifications, the law also will present a real challenge to prosecutors. They admit that it will not be easy to prove repeated "controlling or coercive" behavior beyond a reasonable doubt. This is particularly true given the he said, she said nature of such allegations. 

Charlotte Kneer, who manages a shelter for abused women, called the new law "amazing," but also acknowledged that prosecutions could be difficult given the subtle nature of the early warning signs of domestic violence.  

Kneer noted, "I hope people will gain an understanding of what domestic abuse is, because it isn't just the physical violence. It's a much more complicated picture. This isn’t a minor form of abuse… Coercive control is what domestic violence is, and that’s what people don’t understand.”

Domestic abuse investigators will now receive specialized training in light of the new challenges involved. For example, the abusive behavior needs to have a substantial adverse effect on the victim’s day-to-day activities. The problem is that proving such an affect in court can be challenging. 

In a written statement, David Tucker, a senior national police official, explained that the new law, "demands much fuller understanding of events that led up to a call for assistance, and this can make evidence gathering more complex." 

With the Internet and social media present in virtually every aspect of daily life, most domestic violence cases now involve some form of online abuse. For example, an abuser might install a GPS application on mobile smartphone to track a partner's movements. An abuser also might demand access to passwords so their partner’s online activity can be monitored and vetted.

Alison Saunders, a top prosecutor, praised the new law, expressing in a written statement that, "Being subjected to repeated humiliation, intimidation or subordination can be as harmful as physical abuse, with many victims stating that trauma from psychological abuse had a more lasting impact than physical abuse.”

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.