Vanessa Bettinson: Scotland gives hope to world's domestic abuse victims

Scotland's new law could change the world, says criminal law expert Vanessa Bettinson, of De Montfort University.

Abuse, whether its physical, sexual or psychological, is a scourge  but Scotland is leading the way in fighting the problem.

Before her relationship began, Jennifer enjoyed socialising with her friends, her job, dressing in her favourite clothes, using her car to get about. Now she no longer meets her family unless her boyfriend is there. He embarrasses her in front of them and complains how much time she spends with them. He drives her car and keeps the key so that she cannot drive herself. He has told her she doesn’t need a job, he will look after her.

Tom hates to see his girlfriend buying things when they are shopping. He wants people to know he can take care of her and he hates her going out without him. He has taken her bank card and only gives her enough money to buy basic items when he is at work. Matthew has shouted at his wife for years, calling her stupid and making her feel worthless when he doesn’t like how she cooks. The shouting doesn’t stop until she does it again to his satisfaction. These fictional examples of domestic abuse now amount to a criminal offence in Scotland. Two years ago, I wrote in the Criminal Law Review that Scotland should follow its own path to criminalise domestic abuse.

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‘Unacceptable’ rise in domestic abuse incidents in Scotland

This is what Scotland has now done, passing a uniquely crafted law earlier this month. While there are examples of similar attempts to address a pattern of non-violent, psychological behaviour in other countries, these have had only limited success. By succeeding where other nations have failed, Scotland is leading the world with its robust criminal justice response to domestic abuse and I believe it could show the world how to tackle the scourge of domestic abuse.

The new law reflects promising working partnerships between the Police Scotland, the Crown Office of the Procurator Fiscal Service and specialist support services, like Women’s Aid Scotland. A joint protocol means all incidents of domestic abuse are given high priority and recognises that women are disproportionately affected by it. The law acknowledges the very particular psychological damage caused in intimate relationships where controlling and coercive behaviours are used over a period of time by one partner to subject the other to their will. Compared to the few nations that have created domestic abuse offences, Scotland has created a simpler law which will be easier prosecute, dispensing with any requirement to prove the victim has experienced suffering. It seems clear that Scotland is determined to get it right on domestic abuse. Having had a consultation on creating a discrete domestic abuse offence, Northern Ireland’s authorities will be looking closely at how Scotland implements its new law. A committed application would see Northern Ireland following suit.

Since 2015 England and Wales have had few successful prosecutions for controlling and coercive behaviour in an intimate family relationship. Media reports overwhelmingly show that convictions in cases where victims are controlled and coerced through psychological methods alone remain problematic. This is where the Scottish prosecuting authorities can lead the way. The new domestic abuse offence explicitly places physical, psychological and sexual violence on the same footing. All are equally as serious and can form part of an abusive pattern of behaviour. Scotland focuses on the relationship of partners or ex-partners regardless of co-habitation, compared to England and Wales where ex-partners no longer co-habiting fall outside the offence.

This carefully considered offence is what the world needs and the Scottish authorities must work together to make it a success. If so, where Scotland succeeds the world may follow.

World is beginning to criminalise psychological abuse

The world is realising that domestic abuse is about more than physical violence and Scotland is leading the way forward in creating criminal law that reflects this. Here’s how other nations have responded so far:

England and Wales – created an offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in 2015. While extending to most family relationships, it fails to include ex-partners who no longer cohabit with their victim and provides a defence where the harm is not physical. A number of prosecutions have been reported, with the majority a result of physical harm solely or combined with psychological harm.

Northern Ireland – consulted on creating a new offence in 2016. Currently no draft offence has been produced but the authorities are likely to watch how Scotland’s new domestic abuse offence works. Could follow Scotland rather than England and Wales.

Australia - Tasmania is the only state to have enacted criminal offences aimed at prohibiting economic abuse and emotional abuse or intimidation with the Family Violence Act 2004 (Tasmania). To date, few prosecutions have resulted and opinion is divided about the issue across Australia.

France – First country to ban psychological abuse of a spouse, partner or co-habitant. Reports suggest that the French judicial system and police are yet to understand it or take it seriously, with no convictions achieved within the first 12 months of operation. President Emmanuel Macron last year announced a renewed focus on addressing violence against women.