New U.K. Domestic Violence Law Criminalizes “Coercive Control”

The definition of domestic violence is best summed up by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (“NCADV”). According to NCADV, Domestic Violence is defined as “the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another.”

As if divorce was not difficult enough, many family law litigants find themselves having to deal with domestic violence issues. When most people think of domestic violence, they tend to think of physical violence, but in California the definition is much broader. In fact, it is our experience that most cases of domestic violence don’t involve one spouse simply striking another spouse. California’s Family Code section 6320, part of the Domestic Violence Prevention Act, describes precisely what kind of conduct will justify a domestic violence restraining order:

The court may issue an ex parte order enjoining a party from molesting, attacking, striking, stalking, threatening, sexually assaulting, battering, credibly impersonating as described in Section 528.5 of the Penal Code, falsely personating as described in Section 529 of the Penal Code, harassing, telephoning, including, but not limited to, making annoying telephone calls as described in Section 653m of the Penal Code, destroying personal property, contacting, either directly or indirectly, by mail or otherwise, coming within a specified distance of, or disturbing the peace of the other party, and, in the discretion of the court, on a showing of good cause, of other named family or household members.

While mental abuse can sustain a domestic violence restraining order, there does not appear to be any law in California that criminalizes this behavior. A brand new law in the United Kingdom, however, does exactly that:

“‘Coercive or controlling’ behavior can now be prosecuted as a crime punishable by a fine and up to five years in prison. It can be applied only when the behavior has had a ‘serious effect’ on the victim’s life or causes them to fear violence if they don’t comply.

Authorities say stopping someone from socializing, controlling their social media access or using apps or spyware to put them under surveillance will be covered by the new legislation. It is supposed to apply only in cases where the offending behavior is repeated or chronic.

‘This behavior can be incredibly harmful in an abusive relationship where one person holds more power than the other, even if on the face of this behavior might seem playful, innocuous or loving,’ she said. ‘Victims can be frightened of the repercussions of not abiding by someone else’s rules. Often they fear that violence will be used against them, or suffer from extreme psychological and emotional abuse.’

Many victims say the trauma from psychological abuse is worse than the trauma of physical abuse, Saunders said.’”

In our experience, it is absolutely true that the most sinister cases of domestic violence don’t necessary involve physical violence, but involve one party slowly restricting the freedoms of the other party over a long period of time (from speaking to relatives to accessing social media to active surveillance).

Perhaps our legislature should review this law and enact a similar law in our state.

Please contact us if you are considering a divorce from your spouse, a legal separation, or have questions regarding child custody and visitation. Nancy J. Bickford is the only Certified Family Law Specialist (CFLS) in San Diego County who is also a licensed Certified Public Accountant (CPA) with a Master of Business Administration (MBA). Don’t settle for less when determining your rights. Call 858-793-8884 in Del Mar, Carmel Valley, North County or San Diego.

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