Domestic violence does not have a statutory definition in England and Wales. Since 2004, government departments, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police have instead adopted a working definition of domestic violence: ‘Any incident of threatening behaviour, or abuse between adults who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality.’
From March 2013, the definition will be widened to explicitly include ‘coercive control’, namely the control of one partner by the other, through a variety of different mechanisms, not solely physical violence. We have long recognised psychological and financial controls as elements of domestic violence, but the clarity provided to this issue by the new definition is to be welcomed.
As campaign groups and others working in the field have pointed out, these forms of abuse can be the most damaging for victims and have the most far-reaching consequences. The Association of Chief Police Officers has also been calling for a broader definition for some time, and it is hoped that the planned response in March will enable the police to protect victims at an earlier stage than previously.
Domestic violence is often made up of individual incidents, some physical, some psychological, which combine to create an intolerable situation for victims. The fear of violence can be as harmful as the violence itself. Social isolation of victims is often used as a means of control, and from next year this form of abuse will now fall within the definition. Preventing someone leaving the home or having access to a phone or other forms of communication could now lead to the prosecution of perpetrators.
It is also welcome that the definition will extend to those aged 16 and 17, who are not covered by the current definition. The importance of this alteration is demonstrated by the British Crime Survey, which has found that young people are more likely to suffer domestic abuse than any other age group. More prosecutions are likely to follow from the extension of the definition and more young people will be protected.
But these positive developments must be met by a commitment from the government to support victims of domestic violence who come forward. It now falls upon the government to set out precisely how the new definition will be put to use for the protection of victims. Without sufficient investment, the government may reverse previous gains in preventing domestic violence and dealing with its consequences.
We are of course living in straitened times, but addressing domestic violence must be a priority whatever the circumstances. Training of specialist prosecutors and police officers has been reduced, for example – we must balance austerity measures against long-term considerations.
Austerity has also caused withdrawal or a reduction of funding for a number of non-governmental organisations and support groups for victims of domestic violence. These groups must be supported in the work they do. Without organisations on the ground that can support victims, the new domestic violence definition will lack teeth. After the positive headlines generated by the rule change, the government needs to show that it is committed to this issue over the longer term.
While the broader definition of domestic violence is to be welcomed, we must wait to see how it will be implemented for the protection of victims in this country.
Baroness Scotland QC is a former attorney general for England and Wales