The criminal law has no business interfering in bad relationships

On 29 December 2015, to relatively little fanfare, a well-meaning but ultimately silly criminal law was brought into force. Today, some 8 months on, the Guardian reports that the number of people being prosecuted under this silly law is low, inviting remedy under David Allen Green’s so-prescient-that-it-surpasses-satire Something Must Be Done Act 2014.

The silly law itself could in fact have been enacted pursuant to the SMBDA’s untrammelled prohibitionist jurisdiction, satisfying the Act’s requirement that things that can be banned shall be “the things which a Minister of the Crown says are bad for us”. And what is bad for us, in this instance, is unpleasant, non-violent conduct in private relationships. Hence the birth at the eve of last year of section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, creating a criminal offence of engaging in controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship, an offence which, it emerges, the police and prosecutorial agencies are not wielding with the vigour that campaigners had anticipated. Only 62 people have been charged under the legislation, as opposed to 20,000 for offences involving domestic violence over the same period.

The reason for this, I politely suggest, is twofold. First, this is a largely pointless law, re-criminalising already-criminalised conduct. And second, where it does provide for something new, it trespasses on territory over which the police cannot reasonably be expected to ride.


The Law Against Bad Relationships

The intention behind this law, I add as a rider, is noble. The genesis of many violent domestic relationships can be located in non-violent but controlling and coercive behaviours exhibited early on. If we can address the latter, we can hopefully reduce the former. So far, so unobjectionable. It’s the next step of the argument that trips up the logician – namely that the best way to address controlling or coercive relationships is to pass a shiny new law threatening a 5-year prison term for those whose relationships do not cut the mustard. Like a pissed-up Premier League chairman on transfer deadline day throwing good money after bad, Parliament convinces itself that unwanted, ingrained human behaviour can be eradicated if we just chuck another law at it and send the bobbies in. Or, in the official argot of the Guidance to the Act:

“This offence sends a clear message.”

As any lawyer will tell you, and as I’ve said before in relation to the utterly useless stalking legislation, creating criminal offences to “send a message” is the golden ticket to ensuring the enactment of thoroughly bad law.

The law

So what is the law? An offence under section 76 is committed by a person (A) where:

(a) A is or was previously in an intimate or familial relationship with another (B);

(b) A engages in repeated or continuous behaviour towards B that is controlling or coercive;

(c) That behaviour has a “serious effect” on B, in that it causes either (i) B to fear, on at least two occasions, the use of violence; OR (ii) serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on B’s day to day activities; and

(d) A knows or ought to know that their behaviour will have that effect.

The offence carries the same maximum sentence (5 years’ imprisonment) as inflicting grievous bodily harm, in presumed observance of the (unreferenced) assertion in the Statutory Guidance that “a repeated pattern of abuse can be more injurious and harmful than a single incident of violence”.

The legislation is silent as to what constitutes “controlling and coercive behaviour”, but the Statutory Guidance Framework offers examples of “types of behaviour associated with coercion or control”.

And these are, well…problematic.

Some of these example “behaviours” are, as the Guidance acknowledges, already crimes. And crimes carrying a rather pricklier stick than section 76:

  • Threats to kill (Max sentence 10 years)
  • Child neglect (Max sentence 10 years)
  • Assault (Depending on injury, max sentence of 6 months, 5 years or life imprisonment)
  • Criminal Damage (Depending on quantum of damage, max sentence 6 months or 10 years)
  • Rape (Max sentence life imprisonment)

As for the rest of the list, it stands as a glistening example of the problems inherent in attempting to regulate the intangible, indefinable dynamics of other people’s relationships. Highlights include:

  • Repeatedly putting [a person] down such as telling them they are worthless;
  • Threats to reveal private information;
  • Financial abuse, including control of finances, such as only allowing a person a punitive allowance;
  • Monitoring a person via online communication tools;
  • Monitoring their time;
  • Preventing a person from having access to transport or from working.

These are all, in certain contexts, indicators of toxic, damaging and unhealthy relationships that will spiral into violence. They are also, in certain contexts, the hallmarks of toxic, damaging and unhealthy relationships that won’t. Relationships that will sail their ghastly, destructive, hateful course through to natural completion without accelerating towards physical altercation. Relationships which, in a liberal society, people must be free to pursue and to endure, as long as that is their choice. Neither section 76, nor the police officer charged with enforcing it, has any way of predicting which route a shit relationship is going to trail. Whether it is going to turn violent – in which case, the criminal law should intervene to obviate objective harm – or whether it will remain simply miserable. If the latter, lovely as it would be if relationships were universally sprinkled with mutual respect, courtesy and affection, it is no role of the state to criminalise all deviations from the Richard Curtis romantic ideal, on the statistically vague hypothesis that some of these will turn violent. And to suggest that the police should be more proactive in identifying “coercive and controlling relationships,” and lining them up for prosecution, is broadening the ever-expanding role of overstretched and under-resourced police officers beyond law enforcement and into the arena  of relationship analysis.

If this sounds like a counsel of despair, that is not the intention. Rather it is an attempt to recognise the limited scope of the criminal law in modulating complex, intimate human relationships. If the government believes that it could “save” more women from potentially violent relationships by intervening to “fix” them when they are merely “controlling and coercive”, then that is surely the preserve of social workers, not police officers or prosecutors, and not least in a climate where police and prosecutorial resources are so depleted that cases of serious domestic violence are collapsing on a daily basis. If you try to legislate against every inappropriate personal interaction, you end up with a fuzzy mess like section 76, criminalising everything and nothing.

That, more than anything, might explain why only 62 prosecutions have been pursued. Key to good law is certainty and consistency. ‘Don’t use violence’ is a legal imperative that everyone understands. ‘Make sure you don’t excessively monitor your spouse’s time, and ensure that you don’t give them only a punitive financial allowance’ is the kind of sentiment which no doubt makes sense to well-meaning campaigners, but offers little clarity to the average Josiah or Josephine. Or to the poor sod of a police officer expected to enforce it.


UPDATE: A number of people have pointed out a rather glaring topical omission from this discussion, given that this is the week of Helen’s attempted murder trial in The Archers. Helen, of course, was the longstanding victim of controlling and coercive behaviour at the hands of her husband, Rob, culminating in her stabbing him with a kitchen knife. She also provides an instructive example of the inadequacy of laws such as section 76. The difficulty in Helen’s case, and indeed the difficulty with many cases of domestic abuse, is that Helen for a long time did not consider herself to be a victim. Had concerned friends and family contacted the police, attending officers might have observed an isolated, dominated and deeply unhappy woman, bereft of self-worth living with a controlling, manipulative man, but without Helen’s recognition of her circumstances, and her willingness to support a prosecution, there would have been no chance at all of successfully prosecuting Rob under section 76. And here lies a further problem: Any criminal lawyer will tell you that the greatest obstacle in prosecuting allegations of domestic violence is securing the lasting cooperation of the complainant, for obvious and often understandable reasons. The power dynamics in abusive relationships are such that, even if the police manage to obtain a witness statement from a complainant at the time of an alleged assault, she will often have withdrawn support for the prosecution before trial. While allegations of assault can occasionally be successfully tried without the support of a complainant – through evidence of third parties or medical evidence of injury – cases such as will be brought under section 76 will inevitably require the complainant to give evidence not just of the facts of the coercive behaviour but of the personal impact upon her. In short, a successful prosecution under section 76 will usually require two things – (i) sufficient self-esteem and awareness of one’s circumstances, and (ii) unwavering support for a criminal prosecution – that for all too many victims of domestic abuse, for entirely understandable reasons, are absent. This too may explain why few successful prosecutions emerge under this legislation.

4 thoughts on “The criminal law has no business interfering in bad relationships

  1. Pingback: The criminal law has no business interfering in bad relationships | seftonblog

  2. Thanks for a very interesting, informative post. I think the ‘future threat’ point is a red herring though-the purpose is to punish current/past mostly non-physical abuse, rather than to prevent future offending. As with all DV cases, getting the V to report is problematic but, eg Helen could report it now she has left & there is independent evidence e.g. tracking device exists. The law is problematic, but creating the offence can help victims & perpetrators recognise the behaviour as wrong & understand they are not being ‘silly’ or over-reacting.


  3. Pingback: Finding Fault with the Archers – Res Ipsa Loquitur

  4. I agree that there are serious issues with enforcement of this law, and as such I believe it will take some work on the part of police, social workers and legislators to ensure it is properly enforced. I also believe preventing a toxic relationship from escalating and encouraging people to leave toxic relationships is very important. I also believe that encouraging people to recognise toxic relationships and toxic behaviour and also encourage people to be more emotionally intelligent is a more effective preventative method in ensuring people are not the victims of toxic relationships However, I don’t think that it is misguided to criminalise coercive and controlling behaviour, as the whole purpose of criminalising conduct is to ensure that people are punished for conduct that is morally wrong. As such, criminalising toxic, coercive, controlling behaviour (which involves a broad spectrum of behaviour from threatening to kill/harm to restricting financial independence) allows victims to be assured that the law recognises that such behaviour is wrong and deserves to be punished. The fact that it is difficult to enforce doesn’t mean that such behaviour shouldn’t be criminalised. If such an argument is used then whats the point of criminalising something like rape or corporate tax evasion if it is difficult to enforce or hard to enforce?


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