Legislating emotional abuse will prove difficult.

Anew domestic abuse offence covering ‘coercive and controlling behaviour’ in relationships is to be introduced this year, as announced by the home secretary.

Theresa May hopes this new law will protect victims from extreme psychological and emotional abuse, which can include the abuser preventing their victim from having hobbies or friendships, controlling their finances and ruling everyday aspects of their life. The maximum sentence for the new offence in England and Wales will be five years in prison and a fine. But is this law a step forward for victims or a slippery slope trying to legislate interpersonal conversations?

For many, this law is a welcome addition for those who have long argued that domestic abuse is about far more than acts of physical violence. Research by the Home Office and the Woman’s Aid charity found that police receive a call about domestic abuse every 30 seconds, and further research shows that 1.2 million women in the UK are victims of domestic abuse every year. In criminalising coercive behaviour, the hope is that this law will lead to victims breaking free of this pattern of behaviour earlier.

There is no dispute over whether emotional abuse is just as devastating and damaging as physical violence. Protection for those bearing the physical scars of abuse should not be a higher priority than those struggling with the long-term mental effects of controlling behaviour.

But ‘mental’ is the significant word here, and it is this aspect of legislating emotional abuse which will prove difficult in future cases. Controlling behaviour can take many forms and often be incredibly subtle; moments of jealousy and possessiveness, for example, dressed up as love and concern. Emotional abuse victims will reference the tone of voice, use of intonation or sarcasm that an abuser will use, all of which are characteristics which can so easily be disputed.

Although it has been stated that witness testimony can be supported at prosecution through documentary evidence – such as threatening emails, text messages or bank statements – frequently, emotional abuse is directed through speech. Unless the victim has documented evidence to back their claims, the case will quickly become a battle of ‘he-said, she-said’.

The subjective nature of this abuse leaves boundaries blurred: how exactly do we define when someone’s speech progresses from angry to abusive – legal to illegal?    

But another worry is that this law could lead to tenuous or false reports, made in haste or anger from an ex-partner. Although it is stated that the new offence will outlaw ‘sustained patterns of behaviour’, could flippant remarks said in the moment be used to brand you a criminal? The Home Office has said legislation would be drafted to ensure the laws do not affect ordinary power dynamics in relationships. But this new law will rely heavily on the police and prosecution service successfully recognising that this type of behaviour is now illegal – requiring a culture change.   

Moreover, a study by the Crime Survey for England and Wales shows that 720,000 or 4% of men have been victims of some form of domestic abuse in the last year. Will this new law help men suffering from coercive and controlling behaviour at the hands of a woman? Will men be treated with the same level of justice and fairness when seeking support? Training and further education on existing laws would be more beneficial and lead to more successful arrests, charges and convictions.

This new law can help victims. Even debating this new offence is starting a conversation and raising awareness of coercive control. To prove effective, this law has to be accompanied by proper training and guidelines, with, at the heart of it, education. Teaching all those involved, from the police and legal professions to society itself will be critical if this new law is to end the cycle of abuse.

John McKenna is head of family law at Paul Crowley and Co