New domestic abuse rules extend to your finances

woman upset  crying lying in...
woman upset crying lying in...

New domestic abuse laws come into effect today. They bring into legislation a number of kinds of abuse that have previously fallen through the cracks. New offences under the Serious Crime Bill include someone exerting unreasonable control over your finances. If they are found guilty, they face up to five years in prison and a fine.

It falls into the broader category of psychological and emotional torment that stop short of violence, and yet constitute abuse through a pattern of intimidating, humiliating or threatening behaviour. It will also cover things such as controlling what someone wears, who they see, where they go - including using surveillance apps, and controlling their social media accounts.

Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, said: "Controlling or coercive behaviour can limit victims' basic human rights, such as their freedom of movement and their independence. This behaviour can be incredibly harmful in an abusive relationship where one person holds more power than the other, even if on the face of it this behaviour might seem playful, innocuous or loving."

The change is likely to affect an enormous number of people: a study earlier this month found that one in five people say they have been the victim of some form of financial abuse.

In some cases they are forced to hand over benefits or earnings, in others they have a severely restricted allowance (and are forced to provide receipts accounting for every penny), so they cannot afford food for themselves and their children. Others are prevented from going out to work, or forced to take on joint debts.

Many people find financial abuse continuing long after a relationship has ended - with their partner deliberately withholding maintenance payments or hiding assets in order to cause their partner to suffer financial harm.

Is this fair?

Not every case where one partner wants to exert a degree of financial control over the other will constitute abuse. In every couple, for example, there are times when one half of the couple wants to make a purchase that the other thinks is a bad idea. Sustained arguments over wither you really need another TV or pair of shoes is perfectly normal.

In some couples, one person has to hold the purse strings to a certain extent, because the other one has a long history of poor financial decisions that threaten to harm them both. The question of whether this constitutes abuse will come down to how this is done.

In a healthy relationship, members of the couple will agree to handing over the purse strings to the responsible one - who makes fair and sensible decisions within pre-agreed boundaries. In an unhealthy one, by contrast, they may seize control and use intimidation and emotional abuse to deny their partner reasonable access to funds.

There will clearly be instances where the couple disagrees whether abuse is taking place or not. When deciding whether behaviour constitutes an offence, the police and criminal justice system will have to decide whether the control is ongoing, and of a nature that is likely to have a serious impact on the victim's wellbeing. This could include real fear of violence being used against them or the kind of alarm or distress that have a 'substantial adverse effect' on every-day activities.

Fortunately police and prosecutors are being trained to recognise this form of abuse more effectively, so they can understand the patterns of behaviour that meet the criminal threshold.

Anyone with any concerns can also approach a charity like Refuge for advice. They can offer information and support to help victims tackle abuse and take advantage of the new protection this legislation gives them.

Missed Opportunities to Stop Domestic Abuse?
Missed Opportunities to Stop Domestic Abuse?