Jen Stout reports on the opportunity (and obstacles) to us having “the best response in the world” to domestic abuse “an opportunity for us to be ambitious and bold in doing what we’ve been talking about for fifteen years.”
25,000 new cases of domestic abuse every year – that’s the estimate given by Scottish Women’s Aid in December 2015, extrapolated from their annual census. And the organisation warned that the number was probably much higher. Women’s rights organisations have long campaigned for a legal system that can properly recognise and prosecute all kinds of domestic abuse, rather than just physical violence – and Scotland could soon be leading the way in this regard.
The Domestic Abuse Bill, due to be introduced to parliament by June next year, will see a new offence created, which crucially would include “coercive behaviour” and other actions seen as “abusive in relation to a partner or ex-partner”. The move is linked to the government’s work on ending violence against women and girls; its 2015-16 statistics record 79% of all domestic abuse incidents as having a female victim and male accused.
There was broad agreement in Holyrood this September when the proposed bill was debated. Labour’s Claire Baker MSP said her party was, “in principle”, supportive of the move. Similar legislation was rolled out in England and Wales last year, when the Serious Crime Bill was amended to make “coercive or controlling behaviour” in intimate or family relationships an offence punishable by up to five years in prison.
Presenting the proposals to MSPs, Justice Secretary Michael Matheson described some of the ways in which abusers dominate and humiliate their partners, without necessarily using physical violence. Examples he gave included restricting social life and finances, preventing access to education or work, checking a partner’s communications, or controlling toilet access. Matheson said such behaviour is currently difficult to prosecute in the absence of physical violence or overt threats, and can continue for years.
A consultation on the changes, launched late 2015, found that an overwhelming majority of respondents favoured the inclusion of psychological abuse and coercive control, as well as conduct (threats and physical abuse), in any new domestic abuse offence. Financial abuse, and measures to reflect the impact on children, are also being considered.
The number of recorded incidents of domestic abuse in Scotland fell by three per cent from 2014/15 to 2015/16. But that’s still 58,104 incidents – 51 per cent of which resulted in at least one crime or offence being committed. And these 50,000 are the incidents that make it to the police’s attention – the government acknowledges that “most incidents of domestic abuse go unreported … for a variety of reasons.”
Of course, missing from these national figures are all those incidents that may occur which stop short of physical violence. This is why a change in the law to broaden the scope of abuse is something that Scottish Women’s Aid (SWA) and other organisations, have long campaigned for.
SWA Chief Executive Marsha Scott said that the bill is a chance for Scotland to have: “the best response in the world. Its an opportunity for us to be ambitious and bold in doing what we’ve been talking about for fifteen years.”
“I do expect opposition from the legal establishment”, Scott continues, “but we would really like Scotland to have a productive, constructive discourse and debate around this new law. We are in a country that historically has had cross-party consensus that domestic abuse is a form of women’s inequality. But I think this bill is a big step forward into unchartered territory, and I suspect there will be some who find that very scary. I’m hoping the media will help us create the kind of constructive debate that will help everybody understand the issues and support progress.”
“We are in a country that historically has had cross-party consensus that domestic abuse is a form of women’s inequality. But I think this bill is a big step forward into unchartered territory, and I suspect there will be some who find that very scary. I’m hoping the media will help us create the kind of constructive debate that will help everybody understand the issues and support progress.”
The gaps in the law when it comes to prosecuting domestic abuse, Scott argues, can make women reluctant to come forward and report what’s happening to them. “If you look at the way domestic abuse is prosecuted, you know it doesn’t make sense to respond to what is an epidemic of violence by simply patching together prosecutions around breach of the peace and violent or threatening behaviour… Police and prosecution have done what they can, but the tools are not fit for purpose.
“Women have been telling us for 40 years that it’s the controlling behaviours and psychological violence that have the most long-lasting traumatic effect; we need a law that doesn’t require a woman to go into A&E in order to have a robust charge, prosecution, conviction and sanctioning of the perpetrator.”
With the SNP’s current focus on tackling violence against women and specialist domestic abuse courts now up and running in parts of the country, it seems the idea’s time may have finally come. At the party’s recent conference in Glasgow, Jackie Hendry, Women’s and Equality Officer with Inverness City branch and director of the city’s Women’s Aid, won resounding support for her motion on recognising the impact of long-term abuse.
Keen to see the new offence in place, Hendry also feels the wider structural issues around violence against women must be addressed at the same time. “To tackle domestic abuse head-on we need to address gender inequality”, Hendry said. “We need to look at how we bring up the next generation of boys and girls, and get away from gender stereotypes. It’s heartbreaking when victims go back to their perpetrator because their self worth is so low as to not be able to live away from them.”
Women’s refuges in Inverness, Hendry says, are “nearly always full”, and local news stories in which domestic abuse features are common, dispelling the idea that the problem is more prevalent in the central belt.
So will the bill’s progress be plain sailing? The Law Society raised issues around “clarity” and “acquiring sufficient evidence to justify a prosecution, especially in cases where no physical harm has been caused.” Tory MSP Ross Douglas signalled possible opposition from his party, which now constitutes the largest opposition bloc in the Scottish Parliament, when he said a Crown Office “senior figure” would argue against the creation of a new offence, preferring domestic abuse to be an aggravating factor in cases. Broadly speaking, however, there seems to be support across the chamber for this key piece of the government’s legislative programme.