Marilyn Stowe: When the abuser becomes the accuser

IT seems the Government is set to push forward with plans to criminalise a wider range of domestic abuse. Reports suggest that Home Secretary Theresa May will soon announce plans for a new law to cover this area.

It is already possible to be prosecuted for acting violently against a partner, but this new offence will include “coercive control”. Essentially, this means that someone could be sent to prison if they try to manipulate their partner by threatening them or putting restrictions on their personal or financial freedom.

On the surface this may seem very straightforward. Nobody should have to put up with domestic abuse of any sort, so having a mechanism in law to punish abusers sounds like common sense.

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However, I see the potential for problems if such an offence is created. The most obvious is distinguishing who is the real victim. The focus is clearly slanted from the off. Theresa May has made it clear that her intention is to help women who are victims of this type of abusive control.

Almost all of the conversation around this issue has been focused on male perpetrators and female victims. While no one is denying that male-on-female violence is a major problem, it ignores the fact that in my experience men suffer far more frequently than is often assumed from this particular type of abuse.

But men are usually physically stronger than their wives or partners, and the male version of events is almost never believed.

As a society we tend to accept the word of the more obvious underdog without question. When “unreasonable behaviour” is cited for a divorce, the petitioning spouse will list what their partner has done which led them to seek the end of their marriage. In some cases this can include allegations of coercive control.

More often than not, these allegations will go unchallenged even if the respondent vehemently denies them. This is because doing so will be costly and time-consuming.

But if “coercive control” does become a criminal offence, more men are going to have to negotiate those allegations out of the petition – or defend them, unless we introduce a system of no-fault divorce, something we are still waiting for here in the UK.

Over the years I have encountered more than one “abusive” woman. They may have narcissistic tendencies and can be very hard to spot. They will normally only reveal their true selves, in particular their unrestrained tempers, to their partners. Usually such women will appear to society at large, including their lawyers, as restrained and well-mannered, while they complain of being abused.

Their real mission, meanwhile, will be the subjugation of their spouses. Once separated, they will adamantly protest that their husband should not be permitted anywhere near the children because he is a danger to them. Separating him from “her” children will be her goal.

Her account of the marriage will be littered with plausible-sounding tales of his misconduct. However the truth may ultimately turn out to be very different and in some cases we’ve found that the woman has even been sexually abusing the children.

It’s a very difficult situation and many men simply give up when presented with a wholly vengeful spouse whose formidable actions do not match her self-portrayal as victim. And of course that’s exactly what she wants.

If someone is charged with using coercive control as a form of abuse against their partner, proof should be required, proof that establishes guilt beyond reasonable doubt. But what will happen if men find themselves having to prove their innocence?

If all the abuse happens behind closed doors, obtaining proof either way could be very difficult. It will boil down to who the court believes.

Psychological abuse does not leave physical bruises and the abuser could so easily be the accuser.

I think the law is safe enough as it is. I have real worries a new criminal law would be taking us into unknown realms, with necessary and costly enquiries into psychological abuse.

My experience acting for and against women who are highly manipulative, vengeful and filled with hatred suggests there is a real danger that prosecutions for this crime could ultimately result in unsafe convictions.

Marilyn Stowe is the senior partner at Stowe Family Law, the UK’s largest standalone family law firm. Follow her on Twitter @marilynstowe.