Social media abusers may face jail terms

DOMESTIC ABUSERS who control their victims through social media accounts or spy on them online could now face up to five years in prison.

Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders
Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders

New powers will target perpetrators who subject spouses, partners and other family members to serious psychological and emotional torment but stop short of violence.

Legislation that comes into force today paves the way for charges to be brought in domestic abuse cases where there is evidence of repeated “controlling or coercive behaviour” for the first time.

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The Crown Prosecution Service said the type of abuse covered by the new offence could include a pattern of threats, humiliation and intimidation or stopping someone from socialising, controlling their social media accounts, surveillance through apps and dictating what they wear.

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.

“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.

“Being subjected to repeated humiliation, intimidation or subordination can be as harmful as physical abuse, with many victims stating that trauma from psychological abuse had a more lasting impact than physical abuse.”

The Government announced the creation of the new offence of controlling or coercive behaviour last year after 85 per cent of respondents to a consultation said the law does not currently give sufficient protection to victims.

Coercive behaviour is defined as a continuing act or pattern of acts which are used to harm, punish or frighten a victim.

Controlling behaviour covers a range of conduct designed to make a person subordinate or dependent.

Examples could include stopping a victim from socialising; limiting access to family, friends and finances; monitoring a person via online communication tools, for example using tracking apps on mobile phones; and threats to reveal or publish private information.

Cases will be heard in either magistrates’ or crown courts and the maximum sentence is five years imprisonment, with evidence potentially including emails and bank records.

Home Office guidance says that in order for the offence to apply the pattern of behaviour alleged must have a “serious effect” on the victim.

Louisa Rolfe, national police lead on domestic abuse, said the new offence “will provide more opportunities to evidence other forms of domestic abuse, beyond physical violence”.

David Tucker, of the College of Policing, said: “This is a real opportunity for the police service and CPS to work together to make victims and potential victims of serious assaults safer.”

Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said it was a “landmark moment” in the approach to domestic abuse.”