Why It’s So Hard To Prove Coercive or Controlling Behavior

man in green dress shirt holding woman in black dress

IN 2015, A NEW LAW introduced a criminal offence of “controlling or coercive behavior in an intimate or family relationship”. Yet it remains difficult to prove this kind of abuse in court.

freedom of information request made by law firm Simpson Millar found that the new offence was used just 62 times in its first six months between the end of December 2015 and end of June 2016 and, out of 22 police forces in England and Wales, eight have not charged a single person with the offence. This has led to the implementation of a new pilot scheme by the College of Policing to help officers spot the signs of controlling and coercive behaviour.

The new offence looks for “controlling or coercive” behaviour that is engaged in “repeatedly or continuously” by person A and has a “serious effect” on person B. This is either by making them afraid that violence will be used against them, or by causing serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on their usual daily activities.

For traumatized witnesses, the process of giving evidence in court may trigger a traumatic flashback, panic attack or episode of dissociation where the brain becomes foggy, perceptions are distorted and they become confused and disorientated.

Charlotte Bishop, Ph.D.

It’s typical for police investigations into domestic violence cases to face difficulties, and this new offence is no different. The realities of the way evidence and testimony is currently used in court may seriously limit the effectiveness of prosecutions for this offence. 

Recognising Coercive Control

Research conducted by anti-domestic violence campaigner Evan Stark has shown how coercive control, most often perpetrated by a male against his female partner, can be very hard to recognise. This is because it involves micro-regulation of some of the daily activities already commonly associated with women in their “traditional” role as home-makers, mothers and sexual partners.

Given the persistence of such gender-role expectations, it may be difficult to distinguish coercion and control from romantic love. Research has suggested that jealous and possessive behaviours such as restricting what the victim wears, who she sees and where she goes may be interpreted as signs of the abuser’s love and so not recognised as abusive – at least at first. 

A witness is required to provide a coherent account in court, but a traumatic experience commonly cannot be recalled as a cohesive memory due to the impact trauma has on the brain’s memory processes.

Charlotte Bishop, Ph.D.

Unlike in cases of physical violence that can leave external bruising or broken bones, it’s difficult to objectively assess whether coercive control has taken place. The abuser will typically use signals and covert messages to exert and maintain control and often these have meaning only in the context of that particular relationship. For example, the perpetrator may use a specific look, phrase or movement to convey to the victim that they are close to breaking an unspoken “rule”. 

But these signals may be hard to classify as abusive in and of themselves. Compliance with demands about dressing, shopping or cooking in a particular way to avoid repercussions may seem voluntary to an outsider with little or no understanding of the dynamics in the relationship. This makes it very difficult for those involved in the prosecution process to determine, beyond reasonable doubt, that the behaviour was controlling or coercive for purposes of the offence. 

The Crown Prosecution Service has produced guidance on the types of behaviours to look for and how evidence could be gathered in relation to the new offence. These include diaries kept by the victim, text messages and emails, and testimony from friends, family and people living in the area. Yet, these things may not always provide sufficient evidence of the extent of the harm inflicted on the victim. 

Witness Credibility

If a victim of domestic violence appears in court to testify against an abusive partner, this can also create obstacles to successful prosecution. Despite a shift in favour of reliance on evidence other than testimony, such as photographic evidence of the scene or police descriptions of the demeanour of the alleged witness and perpetrator in the immediate aftermath of the incident, oral testimony is still the preferred form of evidence.

But let’s not forgot the trauma these victims have gone through. Any event or set of enduring conditions which overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope can cause psychological trauma. Victims of domestic abuse and coercive control often live in a permanent state of hyper-vigilance where they are constantly trying to do the right thing and second-guess the reactions of an abuser whose expectations may change minute by minute. This results in a continuing state of siege which may cause the victim to experience ongoing symptoms of trauma.

For traumatised witnesses, the process of giving evidence in court may trigger a traumatic flashback, panic attack or episode of dissociation where the brain becomes foggy, perceptions are distorted and they become confused and disorientated. Without information on trauma, the shaking, confusion, disorientation and an inability to maintain eye-contact which often result from these reactions may lead magistrates, judges and the jury to doubt the credibility and veracity of her testimony. The reactions may also be seized upon by the defence barrister and portrayed as suspicious in an attempt to undermine witness credibility. In addition, a witness is required to provide a coherent account in court, but a traumatic experience commonly cannot be recalled as a cohesive memory due to the impact trauma has on the brain’s memory processes. Again, this is likely to affect perceptions of credibility.

In my own research, I’m looking at whether information given to the jury on the possible impacts of trauma on witness testimony would be appropriate to help overcome some of these obstacles. Without appropriate understandings, the impact of trauma may severely undermine perceptions of the credibility and reliability of the witness and so further reduce the likelihood of a conviction.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at The Conversation and is republished here under Creative Common License.


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Non-Fatal Strangulation to be Criminalized in England and Wales

a person touching a woman s eye with a bruise

NON-FATAL STRANGULATION is slated to become a criminal offense in England and Wales, carrying a sentence of up to seven years in prison. The expansion of the UK’s cutting edge domestic abuse bill to include non-fatal strangulation will close a gaping legal loophole that has enabled perpetrators of intimate partner abuse and domestic homicide to escape justice – until now. 

The initiative to amend the Domestic Abuse Bill and criminalize non-fatal strangulation was led by the Center For Women’s Justice, who met with Justice Secretary and Lord High Chancellor Robert Buckland.

Nogah Ofer, a solicitor at the Centre for Women’s Justice, said, “It is time that as a society we stopped normalizing and ignoring [non-fatal] strangulation.

“The vast majority of these crimes are committed against women,” the Lord Chancellor told the BBC, “They are often a precursor to even more serious violence.”

What is non-fatal strangulation?

Non-fatal strangulation is compression on the neck to seriously obstruct respiration and cause harm, but not death. It is an antecedent to gender-based homicide. The Femicide Census reports that a woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK.

The practice is different from so-called erotic asphyxiation because it is:

  • Non-consensual.
  • Intended to cause harm and induce fear.
  • Occurs in the context of abusive power and control.

Why is non-fatal strangulation a gendered crime? 

Non-fatal strangulation affects 10 times as many women as men, making it a gendered form of intimate partner violence.

According to a 2019 report from the Office for National Statistics:

“Around one in six (17%) of female victims were killed by strangulation, asphyxiation, this was the second most common method of killing for female victims. In contrast, a much smaller proportion (3%) of male victims were killed in this way.”

What is femicide?

Femicide is a term that describes the killing of females by males because of their gender. Diana Russell coined the term in 1974. It is the principal cause of premature death for women globally.

Domestic Abuse in the UK in numbers

In 2019, some 2.4 million adults in the UK were targets of domestic abuse:

  • 1.6 million women
  • 786,000 men

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the incidence of domestic abuse has skyrocketed, creating a ‘pandemic within a pandemic’

“Domestic abuse is an abhorrent crime perpetrated on victims and their families by those who should love and care for them,” says Victoria Atkins MP, Minister for Safeguarding.

The socio-economic cost of domestic abuse in England and Wales is estimated to be a staggering £66 billion

Women usually experience approximately 50 episodes of intimate partner violence before they report.

References


Confidential support is available 24/7/365 to anyone experiencing abuse.
In the USA call 1-800-799-7233 or log on to thehotline.org.
In the UK call 0808 2000 247 or log on to nationaldahelpline.org.uk.


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8 Facts About Non-Fatal Strangulation

What is non-fatal strangulation? | Coercive Control

Non-fatal strangulation is a form of asphyxia produced by continuous application of pressure to the throat. In the context of domestic abuse, it is a tool used by one person to threaten, frighten, and subjugate another person. It is an act of abusive power and control. Research shows that it is a high-risk marker for intimate partner femicide. Every year 50 000 women are killed by intimate partners or family members around the world.

What you’ll learn in this article:

  1. What is non-fatal strangulation?
  2. Common types of non-fatal strangulation
  3. What are the risks of non-fatal strangulation?
  4. Physical effects
  5. Psychological effects
  6. What is the purpose on non-fatal strangulation?
  7. How is non-fatal strangulation different from erotic asphyxiation?
  8. What to do if it’s happened to you

According to the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention, “A woman who has suffered a nonfatal strangulation incident with her intimate partner is 750% more likely to be killed by the same perpetrator.” 

What is non-fatal strangulation? 

The term non-fatal strangulation is compression on the neck to seriously obstruct respiration and cause harm, but not death. It is synonymous with choking, stifling, and throttling. In the context of domestic abuse, it is distinguished as an act of gender-based violence commonly used by perpetrators of coercive control. 

Common types of non-fatal strangulation

The three (3) main types of non-fatal asphyxiation are: 

  • Hanging when a person is suspended with a ligature around his or her neck, which constricts due to the gravitational pull of the person’s body weight.
  • Ligature occurs when the pressure applied around the neck is with a ligature only.
  • Manual occurs when pressure is applied to the neck with hands, arms, or legs. 

In the context of domestic abuse, these acts of aggression occur by force and against the victim’s will. Perpetrators of non-fatal asphyxiation constrict the throat of the victim by:

  • Using one or both hands
  • Applying pressure with a forearm
  • Applying pressure with a knee or foot
  • Use of objects, such as a strap, plastic, rope, belt, scarf, cord, scarf, necklace, etc. 

What are the risks of non-fatal strangulation?

Obstructing the upper airway can be lethal. Non-fatal asphyxiation can lead to a decrease of oxygen and cause brain damage or cardiac arrest within minutes of the attack.

Physical effects

Some of the physical effects of non-fatal asphyxiation are:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Brain damage
  • Hoarse voice
  • Paralysis
  • Motor and speech disorders
  • Stroke
  • Bladder or bowel incontinence 
  • Dizziness
  • Memory loss
  • Tinnitus
  • Seeing dark spots
  • Tunnel vision
  • Memory loss

Psychological effects

Some of the psychological effects of non-fatal asphyxiation are:

  • Post-traumatic stress (PTSD)
  • Depression
  • Suicidality
  • Dissociation
  • Compliance
  • Amnesia

What is the purpose of non-fatal strangulation? 

Non-fatal asphyxiation is a non-consensual power and control tactic used by one person to express physical dominance over another. In the context of coercive control, it is an instrumental type of violence used to foster compliance and submission in the person targeted for the abuse.

How is non-fatal strangulation different from erotic asphyxiation?

What differentiates non-fatal strangulation from so-called erotic asphyxiation is context and consent.

While both non-fatal asphyxiation and so-called erotic asphyxiation are expressions of physical dominance, some of the key differences between them are:

Non-fatal strangulation is:

  • Non-consensual.
  • Occurs in the context of abusive power and control.
  • Intended to cause harm and induce fear.

Erotic asphyxiation is:

  • Consensual.
  • Occurs in the context of mutual sexual pleasure.
  • Is not intended to cause harm.

What to do if you’ve experienced non-fatal strangulation?

If you’ve experienced non-fatal asphyxiation, get help immediately! Support is available in the USA at The National Domestic Violence Hotline. and in the UK at The National Domestic Abuse Helpline.

References


Confidential support is available 24/7/365 to anyone experiencing abuse.
In the USA call 1-800-799-7233 or log on to thehotline.org.
In the UK call 0808 2000 247 or log on to nationaldahelpline.org.uk.


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