A groundbreaking law on domestic abuse takes effect today in England and Wales. It expands the meaning of domestic violence to include psychological and emotional torment. So it is now a crime there to control your spouse, say, through social media or online stalking. Experts in domestic violence say it represents a new way to look at the whole issue of abuse.
Until recently, the only way police there could arrest someone for domestic violence was if the person assaulted or threatened their spouse. After a lot of research with victims, authorities realized that abuse often starts earlier and is more pervasive than they thought.
The new law makes illegal all sorts of controlling and coercive behavior in a relationship. This can include stealing money from a spouse, limiting financial freedom, Internet stalking or restricting access to friends and family. Prosecutors will have to show a pattern of abuse and that it has real impact on a victim’s life.
Police around England and Wales are now being trained to spot signs of controlling behavior and enforce the law. Violators could face a sentence of up to five years behind bars.
Domestic violence advocates say the law is a real shift in the way that the legal system thinks about abuse. No longer do authorities need to wait for an abuser to cross some line of physical violence. They can look for other forms of domination.
Rutgers professor Evan Stark says the new law better reflects the reality of abusive relationships. “When a woman is being controlled, she can’t effectively resist or escape when she is threatened with violence. So what we’re really coming to appreciate about this is that if we want to prevent homicides we need to prevent control.”
In the U.S., Stark says, only a few states have put in place laws that recognize these patterns. In most parts of the country, police wait until the first serious physical assault. Sometimes, that’s too late.
Charlotte Kneer, who left her husband after years of emotional and physical abuse, now runs a shelter in southern England. She says she doesn’t know if the new law will lead to many prosecutions, but that all the attention will help.
She says, “This will get people to understand what domestic abuse is, because right now, people just think, ‘Oh she got hit once in a while.’ ”