Amendment 149

Part of Domestic Abuse Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 8th February 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department 9:30 pm, 8th February 2021

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for setting out the case for their amendments, which seek to extend the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for tabling his amendment, which seeks to repeal the so-called carer’s defence. I join others in paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, and all the work that she has done in this area. I am grateful, too, to my noble friend Lady Verma, for pointing out the very particular problems faced by some BAME ladies. My noble friend Lady Sanderson illustrated so well how society, including notable broadcasters, has, over time, got to grips with an understanding of coercive control and the terrible harm it causes.

I will address Amendments 149 and 157 before turning to Amendment 171. Amendment 149 seeks to remove the current requirement in the offence of living together in the case of former partners as well as family members. Amendment 157 seeks to remove the current requirement in the offence of living together in the case of relatives who are perpetrating abuse but who do not live with their victim.

Controlling or coercive behaviours are an insidious form of domestic abuse that have long-term debilitating effects on victims and survivors. Such behaviours, intended to harm, punish and frighten, can be perpetrated within intimate and family abusive relationships. The offence of controlling or coercive behaviour applies, as it stands, to those who are personally connected. That means that it applies to intimate partners regardless of whether they live together, ex-partners who live together, or family members who live together. The offence does not currently apply to ex-partners or family members who do not live together. The rationale behind this is that there are other criminal offences—stalking and harassment—that may be used to prosecute controlling or coercive behaviours post separation, or in cases where family members do not live together. Indeed, the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour was specifically introduced to close a gap in the law with regard to abuse by intimate partners or family members in the same household.

Turning to surviving economic abuse, the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, along with other noble Lords and domestic abuse organisations, rightly highlight that controlling or coercive behaviour often begins, continues or intensifies when the victim and perpetrator no longer live together. They further argue that the stalking and harassment offences are not specifically designed to prosecute this sort of behaviour. Supporters of this amendment also make the point that controlling or coercive behaviour occurs between family members who do not live together, an example being adult children who inflict economic abuse on their elderly parents. Furthermore, as my noble friend Lord Goschen pointed out, the new statutory definition of domestic abuse includes ex-partners among those defined as personally connected and does not have a “living together” requirement. Therefore, an amendment to the controlling or coercive behaviour offence could be seen as conforming to the definition in Part 1 of the Bill.

There are convincing arguments on either side of this debate, and the case for change is not clear-cut. The offence of controlling or coercive behaviour has been in force for just over five years. Consequently, there is only limited evidence on which to build a case for amending the legislation. Given its relative newness, there is also work to be done to further embed the offence throughout the criminal justice system.

Additionally, though not specifically designed to cover controlling or coercive behaviours, the stalking and harassment offence is broad enough that it may apply to post-separation abuse. This includes forms of economic abuse so rightly highlighted by Surviving Economic Abuse. It is also worth noting that the stalking and harassment offence has a maximum sentence of 10 years, whereas for controlling or coercive behaviour it is five years.

The Government are committed to ensuring that any changes to legislation are made on a sound evidential basis. To support this, in 2018 we committed to conducting a review into the controlling or coercive behaviour offence. Though the Home Office has made good progress with the review, it has been unavoidably delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has necessitated refocusing our efforts to support victims throughout this difficult time. We will be publishing the review findings ahead of Report. As the case for change here is not clear-cut, we will continue to consider the evidence for and against change, including the review into the offence, ahead of Report. In coming to a final view, we will reflect very carefully on this debate.

Amendment 171 seeks to repeal what has been labelled by some as the “carer’s defence”, under Section 76(8) to 76(10) of the 2015 Act. This allows for a limited defence where the accused believes that they were acting in the best interests of the victim. The defence is limited as it is not available in cases where the victim fears that violence will be used against them. In addition to believing that he or she was acting in the best interests of the victim, the accused would also need to demonstrate to the court that while their behaviour might have appeared controlling, it was reasonable in all the circumstances of the case. The defence is intended to cover cases where the accused is genuinely acting in the best interests of the victim: for example, if the accused has a caring responsibility for a disabled partner and for medical reasons must compel their partner to take medication or stay at home against their will, for their own protection or well-being. Again, it is important to note that this defence is not available in cases where the victim feared that violence would be used against them.

Supporters of this amendment have put forward three main arguments: first, that it is necessary to protect vulnerable victims who have disabilities or mental health issues from coercion or control; secondly, that the defence has the potential to prolong the abuse of disabled victims and prevent them from accessing equal justice; and, thirdly, that alternative legislation, such as the Mental Capacity Act, may be used by the accused to argue that they were acting in the best interests of the victim. This would render the defence unnecessary. However, the Government consider this defence entirely necessary. There will be specific circumstances in which it is possible that the accused’s behaviour, while it might be considered controlling in a different context, is justified and reasonable given the nature of their caring responsibilities. There is a real risk that, without such a defence, a person may be wrongfully convicted of controlling or coercive behaviour when in fact they were indeed acting in a person’s best interests.

As is the case with all legal defences, it is for the courts and juries to decide merit on a case by case basis, and whether the threshold for the defence has been met or not. There are similar or equivalent defences in Scotland, in Section 6 of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018, and in the proposed new domestic abuse offence in Northern Ireland, in Clause 12 of the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill, which has recently completed its passage through the Northern Ireland Assembly.

In conclusion, while I cannot support Amendment 171, I undertake to consider further Amendments 149 and 157. On that basis, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.