Domestic autonomy takes another beating

Nick Clegg’s expanded definition of domestic violence conflates vicious assaults with ordinary behaviour.

Helen Reece

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Following a consultation earlier this year, the UK deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, announced that the government will adopt a new definition of domestic violence with effect from next March.

This new definition will include ‘any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members’. It will extend not only to physical or sexual abuse but to financial, psychological and emotional abuse, too. The Home Office announcement explains that controlling behaviour includes acts ‘designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent’ by, among other things, ‘exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain’ or ‘regulating their everyday behaviour’.

This refined definition has been welcomed, particularly for its inclusion of ‘coercive control’, by both police and groups working with victims of domestic violence. The only criticism so far has been that the definition doesn’t go far enough. To general nods of agreement, the Home Office has suggested that the new definition will help victims to come forward and ask for help, as well as ensuring that cases of domestic violence are treated consistently by different governmental agencies.

True, these proposals do no more than bring the Home Office definition into line with other influential definitions of domestic violence. A striking example is the case of Mrs Yemshaw, who back in 2008 asked Hounslow Council in London to re-house her on the grounds of her husband’s violence. Hounslow declined, on the basis that her husband had never actually hit her, nor even threatened to. But when Mrs Yemshaw’s case ended up in the Supreme Court last year, the law lords held that domestic violence includes ‘threatening or intimidating behaviour and any other form of abuse which, directly or indirectly, may give rise to the risk of harm’, including psychological, financial or emotional abuse and harm. Mrs Yemshaw’s case was remitted to Hounslow Council for it to reconsider.

It is hard not to feel heartened when an unhappy wife is given her own haven, and no doubt some people support the new definition with similar sentiment. But there are many dangers in the law adopting a definition of domestic violence that does not even centre on, let alone restrict itself to, physical acts.

The most direct danger is to those individuals – mainly men – who will be branded as domestic-violence perpetrators. Even leaving to one side the stigma, not to mention the real risk of prosecution, the label domestic violence is the gateway to a nebulous bundle of coercive state powers. A sobering example is the Domestic Violence Protection Notice, currently being piloted. Under this scheme, if a police officer reasonably believes that a man has used or threatened violence towards his partner and that his partner needs protection from him, then the police officer has the power to order him to leave his home and also his neighbourhood, even against his partner’s wishes. So when the police are called – perhaps by a neighbour – to defuse a heated family row, this can lead to eviction and forced family separation, even though the couple raised only their voices, not their fists.

Just as insidious is the deeply unpleasant depiction of human relations in the definition. An expansive definition of domestic violence means that violent relationships are no longer the exception. Instead, we are encouraged to look for danger in our most intimate relationships and to be suspicious of our loved ones’ normal behaviour. The Home Office message is: ‘Okay, so he’s never hit you, but has he ever made you feel bad about yourself?’ But which reader is unable to catalogue a list of your partner’s controlling behaviour, emotional abuse, acts designed to make you dependent, or attempts to exploit your resources for personal gain? Such a list includes: any disparaging remarks about your appearance; being yelled at; attempts to curtail your social engagements; being encouraged to cut back on your working hours; or being told to spend your hard-earned salary on Sky Sports. Perhaps the hardest to avoid in any close relationship is regulation of your partner’s everyday behaviour – which reminds me, I need to check mine has emptied the dishwasher.

Traditional gender-stereotyped relationships are particularly likely to be labelled violent. What could be better ‘designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent’ than becoming a housewife, who will definitely have her resources and capacities exploited for the breadwinner’s personal gain? But even outside the traditional nuclear family, isn’t the very essence of an intimate relationship a series of acts designed to make you increasingly dependent on your partner? Small wonder that current domestic violence research finds a high prevalence of domestic-violence victims – the wonder is that research finds anyone who isn’t. And this is, of course, another danger: that all women are encouraged to see themselves as sufferers. Indeed, one of the explicit reasons given by the Home Office for the new wider definition is that as things stand, domestic violence victims who haven’t suffered any physical violence may not realise that they are victims.

Not every relationship is a rose garden; clearly, people are sometimes very nasty to each other. And there is a difference between the woman in a stormy relationship and the woman who is downtrodden. But there is also a world of difference between the woman who is belittled and the woman who is beaten up, and the law does neither any favours by conflating them.

Helen Reece is a reader in law at the London School of Economics.

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