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Protection or Prevention? Coercive Control Legislation and its Impact on NI

With the new legislation concerning the criminalisation of coercive control in Northern Ireland finally coming into effect this year, there has been a lot of conversation surrounding the topic however there is little general awareness of the issue among most people.

Domestic abuse is increasingly recognised as an area of serious public concern, however, most only consider the physical aspects of abuse, as these are criminalised in most jurisdictions and are usually well informed about, when in fact the mental side of abuse is just as serious and spoken about less.

The psychological effects are not as often considered as there is less protective legislation around it and much less public awareness and yet they are of equal - if not more - concern. But what is coercive control and why do we need this legislation? Does it even go far enough to protect us?

What is coercive control?

Women’s Aid NI define coercive control as:

“an intentional pattern of behaviour (often used alongside other forms of abuse) which can include threats, excessive regulation, intimidation. Humiliation and enforced isolation. It is designed to punish, dominate, exploit, exhaust, create fear, confusion and increase dependency in a woman (or a woman and her children). Over time it can lead to a complete loss of self.”

The term was developed by academic Evan Stark in his book Coercive Control: The Entrapment of Women in Personal Life, but has now been adapted to understand domestic abuse as more than just the physical violence element, but also the psychological behaviour which “seeks to take away the victim’s liberty or freedom, to strip away their sense of self”.

Traditionally, domestic violence has been understood to be incidents of physical violence. Stark attempts to help us rethink what constitutes domestic abuse through this term by arguing that it is tactics such as isolation, degradation, mind games and the micro-regulation of everyday life, among others that highlight that it is the psychological control over the victim that is the danger.

Coercive control has been introduced into legislation as a criminal offence following the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (NI) coming into force in February 2022, which criminalises “coercive, controlling, emotional and psychological behaviour” under Section 2 of the Act. The results and impacts of this are starting to come into force and this change to legislation has been welcomed by many. However, this legislation has been present in other jurisdictions since 2015 and has been largely absent from both the legal and social atmosphere in Northern Ireland, despite here being one of the most dangerous places in Europe for women in terms of domestic abuse.

More women are murdered in Northern Ireland as a result of domestic violence than in any other part of Europe per capita, and cases of domestic violence have increased here since the beginning of the pandemic — and continue to increase.

Yet only now are key pieces of legislation such as these going through our own systems, despite provisions existing in other parts of the UK. This could be due to the fact that there has been no consistently functioning Executive and Assembly in NI in recent years, however even now while more key pieces of legislation are going through, we still lack the secure government funding to implement these legislative changes practically and this still remains a grave issue within our jurisdiction.

Why do we need this?

It is evident that there is a pressing need for proper legislation surrounding domestic abuse in Northern Ireland, whether that be the physical or psychological aspects, and that the introduction of the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act NI has been and will continue to be necessary in our current climate. For instance, in Northern Ireland there were 31,848 domestic abuse incidents recorded from 1 Jan 2020 to 31 December 2020, which is, on average, one incident every 16 minutes – this is only the reported statistics, as thousands more will go unreported, due to fear, lack of awareness or other factors which hinder many people from reporting these.

This is not to mention that not all of these incidents will be prosecuted, despite the incredibly hard process that comes with reporting domestic abuse incidents; it takes an insane amount of courage and support to even report these offences yet most still feel like this is not enough, as many women feel they are silenced by the judicial system as it is not common to see proper justice for these in proportion to the amount that is reported. Furthermore, there is also a grave need for proper legislation and support for victims of domestic abuse as many do not have the courage to be able to report these instances and unfortunately, this does sometimes lead to instances of violence and domestic abuse-related killings.

For instance, there have been five women murdered with domestic abuse motivation in the last year, and a woman in an abusive relationship is murdered on average every other month in Northern Ireland. There have been many moving case examples of where there has been a failure to protect those in abusive relationships and intervene before it was too late, however, it is the words of Carol Corr, the mother of Joleen who was sadly killed which ring true, in which she says, “I would think `How did this happen?' It's something you see on TV or read in a book, not something that comes to your door.”

She advises "anyone suffering any type of mental or physical abuse, whether it's a man or a woman, find someone you can trust and talk to them and don't think that they won't do it again, they will do it again. A leopard never changes its spots.” From this, it’s clear to see that this can happen to anybody, and it is not possible to detach from the reality of the situation that this legislation is needed to protect many people who are experiencing this.

Will it make a difference?

There is a lot of hope within the country that this will be a great step forward in the right direction. In fact, more than 100 domestic abuse coercive control reports are being received by police a month following the introduction of this new offence. Furthermore, there have been more than 170 arrested on charges under the new legislation since February 2022. In spite of this, it is still a growing problem – it is very easy to detach yourself from these kinds of situations, think that because it doesn’t affect you directly that it is not a problem. As stated by Former Justice Minister Naomi Long (whom the new legislation was introduced under), the new domestic abuse offence "marks a milestone, and a real step change, for all those that are affected and who may be suffering in silence", however, "the sad truth is that while domestic abuse is all too common, it is often a hidden problem".

This kind of abuse can take many different forms and often it can be completely isolating for the victim; the sad thing is that it is incredibly common, but there is very little awareness surrounding it. A research study on public understanding of coercive control has been released (10 June 2021) by ARK – a joint initiative between Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University that demonstrates the severe need for public awareness of coercive control issues. The report entitled ‘Public Understanding of Coercive Control’ highlighted that over one-third of respondents (36%) showed a lack of understanding of what coercive control means, with 18–24-year-olds being less likely to recognise the term coercive control and know what it means. This clearly illustrates not only a definite need for awareness of what coercive control is to be raised among the public, but also how to recognise the signs of this type of abuse.

Does this go far enough to protect us?

It is clear that while this legislation is a great step in the right direction, there are still major issues within the system that prevent this legislation from having a fully beneficial effect. One of the major issues is the chronic underfunding by the government in terms of tackling the demand for domestic aid. This area is currently being explored by Women’s Aid Federation NI in their current 16 Days of Action campaign, which calls on the government to “unlock the funding” for resources for domestic abuse victims to meet the obvious demand for it within our country.

There has always been a clear disparity between resources in Northern Ireland and those of our UK counterparts. However, this has been highlighted by the lack of a functioning executive in our country (in particular in the current climate of the cost-of-living crisis). Sarah Mason, WAFNI’s Chief Executive, stated: “the reality is that women are being murdered in Northern Ireland as we wait for the government to provide the necessary level of funding to tackle this epidemic affecting our society. Women’s Aid does not apologise for being a strong voice for women and we will continue to fight for the necessary resources”.

"Time is running out for too many women and the clock is ticking. This is a damning indictment on our society that so many women are paying the ultimate price.” and demonstrates that the demand for practical resources and funding goes beyond what the legislation change offers.

It is clear that while this legislation is a great step in the right direction, it is simply not enough to tackle the full scale of the problem within our country. This is a deep-rooted issue that goes beyond this sole piece of legislation and will require a considerable amount of practical enforcement through funding and awareness, as well as just enactment. However, the introduction of the legislation remains a welcome change within the system and a great advancement towards protecting victims of domestic abuse in Northern Ireland.

Featured Image Credit: TIME


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