Repeal of provisions about defence for controlling or coercive behaviour offence

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 17th June 2020.

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“In section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 (controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship), omit subsections (8) to (10) (which make provision for a defence in proceedings for an offence under that section).”

This new clause seeks to repeal the ‘carers’ defence’ for the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in intimate or family relationships.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It is great to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Bone—welcome back to the Committee. I rise to speak to new clause 25, on the repeal of provisions about defence for controlling or coercive behaviour offence.

Domestic abuse against disabled people is simply not discussed enough. They are hidden victims. When abuse against disabled people is raised, it is usually in the context of adult safeguarding processes, which labels disabled people as vulnerable adults and which disabled survivors and specialists in the field tell us is failing them.

The new clause reflects 10 years’ worth of casework by Stay Safe East, one of only two organisations in England and Wales led by disabled women supporting disabled survivors, and its partner organisations, in an advisory group on domestic abuse and disability. That is two specialist disability and deaf services for a disabled population of 10 million people.

The data on abuse against disabled people is grim. Disabled adults are at least 1.5 times more likely to be a victim or survivor of violence than non-disabled adults. Disabled women are at least three times more likely to experience domestic abuse from family members, be that their partner, parents, siblings, adult children or other family members. Some of the abusers will also be the person’s carer. It is highly likely that those figures are an underestimate, as the only example—the crime survey—is not in an accessible format for deaf and disabled people to participate in, and many survivors cannot access external help.

The rate of domestic abuse against disabled men is also higher than against non-disabled men, but disabled women are more likely to experience repeated, sustained and more violent abuse than disabled men. Disabled children, and particularly disabled girl children, are more likely to experience sexual violence and physical abuse than non-disabled children. What is more, disabled people may have other people in their lives who have a level of control, whether that is unpaid carers or paid carers from an agency, or a personal assistant.

This is the case for disabled women across all communities, of all ages and all backgrounds. Disabled women face specific forms of abuse at the hands of partners, family members and paid or unpaid carers: control of communication; control of medication; restricting access to disability support; using a person’s impairment to control them—for example, playing on their mental health or taking advantage of the fact that they have learning disabilities—forced marriage on the grounds that the partner “will look after you when I am gone”; and constantly abusing women because of their impairment. That, in itself, is a form of hate crime.

Abusers hold the very real threat that, “They will take your kids away from you” over a disabled woman. In the experience of both Stay Safe East and SignHealth, a deaf-led service for deaf survivors of domestic abuse, deaf or disabled mothers are at much higher risk of losing their children through the courts or other domestic abuse. In some cases, the courts opt to place children in the care of an abusive father rather than letting them live with a disabled mother, who is considered a poor parent for reasons simply of her disability, and providing support to keep the children with her.

Unfortunately, disabled victims who are able to speak out against this face multiple barriers to gaining safety and justice. Poor access to refuges or emergency accommodation; voice phone-only contact with many services, which excludes deaf women and those without speech; services not set up to deal with victims who need long-term support; a lack of quality, accessible information or British Sign Language interpreters; no access to counselling—the list is very, very long.

Worst of all is not being believed by police, social workers or health workers because they are disabled women, which is something that is frequently reported by deaf and disabled women who approach the two specialist organisations. A little-known clause, now subsections 76(8) and (9) of the Serious Crime Act 2015, introduced what has been dubbed “the carers’ defence” by disabled survivor groups. It introduced a worrying caveat into what was a piece of legislation to protect victims of abuse, by allowing an abuser who is facing charges of coercive control to claim that they were acting in the best interests of the victim.

That provision was originally brought to the attention of legislators through the efforts of Sisters of Frida, a disabled women’s collective, and Stay Safe East, but it became part of the 2015 Act. Although the clause may have been introduced with the best of intentions, to avoid unnecessary prosecution of carers who were, for example, preventing somebody with dementia from going out alone because they were at risk, there is a real risk that it could be used by abusers to claim that they are acting in the best interests of somebody they are controlling with malicious intent.

That is especially true of people who might be seen to have capacity issues, such as deaf people, people without speech, people with cognitive issues as a result of a stroke, people with learning difficulties and people with mental health challenges. That, of course, is a substantial number of potential victims among those who face the greatest barriers to safety and getting justice.

For example, the parents of a young woman with mild learning disabilities stopped her going out alone, only letting her go to college with a chaperone, on the grounds that she was at risk from strange men. The parents had failed to teach their daughter about safe relationships, had removed her from personal, social, health and economic education lessons in school, and had controlled her friendships with her peer group. The family claimed that they were protecting her. The young woman initially believed that her parents were doing their best for her, but as she grew up she came to realise that she could make her own decisions. It subsequently emerged that, on top of all the coercive control, the family were taking the young woman’s benefits, and there was also physical abuse.

The section gives a clear message to disabled survivors and victims generally: “Your decisions are not your own, and abusers can claim to be acting in your best interests.” “For her own good” is an expression we often hear abusers using, even if they are abusing that very interest, and the courts will let them get away with exercising abuse of power over their victims.

In a context where disabled survivors are the least likely to speak out, and where, if a case does go to court, the chance of a successful outcome for the victim is very low, especially for disabled victims, that is not the message that we want legislation on domestic abuse to give to survivors or, for that matter, the police, the Crown Prosecution Service or abusers. The Care Act 2014 and the Mental Capacity Act 2005 both provide sufficient protection for genuine carers who face malicious allegations. A law to protect victims is not the place for a clause that protects potential abusers.

All too often, concerns about disabled victims are ignored. The Government now have a real opportunity to listen, and we urge the Minister to take full advantage of that opportunity. We are talking about a group with many intersectional and very complex challenges, which provide additional areas for abusers to exert control and abuse.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

This is the first of two debates on different aspects of the controlling or coercive behaviour offence in section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015. As the hon. Member for Hove has indicated, new clause 25 seeks to repeal the defence in section 76(8), which has been labelled by some as the “carers’ defence”.

Currently, the coercive or controlling behaviour offence allows for such a limited defence if the accused believes that they were acting in the best interests of the victim. It is important to note that the accused would also need to demonstrate to the court that in all the circumstances of the case their behaviour, while apparently controlling, was reasonable. This defence is intended to cover cases, for instance, in which the accused was the carer for a disabled spouse, and for medical reasons had to compel their partner to take medication or to stay at home for their own protection.

It is worth taking a moment to consider the sorts of circumstances in which that defence might apply. Imagine a situation in which neighbours walk past a home and see someone who wants to get out of the front garden and on to the road, and is in some distress at not being able to do so. That neighbour calls the police, and the police then investigate. It emerges that the person trying to get on to the road is, very sadly, suffering from dementia, and their partner is a person of unimpeachable integrity and good character—a decent, loving partner of many years’ standing who has shown nothing but care and compassion for that individual, but who is concerned that if they get out on to the road, they will be a danger to themselves and others. Is it seriously to be suggested that that person should be at risk of conviction, punishment and disgrace?

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

That is not what has been outlined. It has already been clearly stated that provisions in the Mental Capacity Act 2005 would allow for that exact defence. Also, can the Minister not imagine a situation in which if a victim in that exact circumstance says she is a victim of domestic abuse, that might be the case?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Of course it might be the case, but the important thing is that this defence allows a proper opportunity for a tribunal of fact to consider that, and I think it is absolutely right that it should do so. It is worth noting that under section 76 the burden is on the individual to advance that defence, and for a tribunal of fact to then consider whether it has been disproved. In other words, if that individual advances something that is utterly implausible, a jury—or indeed a bench of magistrates—would have little difficulty in exposing it as such.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

It is important to note that we are leaping straight from a hypothetical, in which a woman with dementia is trying to climb over a fence, to court. However, between those two stages we have the first responders. Having experienced the training, care, compassion and expertise of the frontline responders in the prevention team of Sussex police, I would find it extraordinary if a frontline responder could not tell the difference between these scenarios, or certainly determine whether there is enough evidence to pursue the kind of prosecution that the Minister is describing.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

We have to be very clear about this. If an individual does not have that defence, considering the elements of section 76, we would be left with a person who is apparently being caused some distress—as would be evident to the first responder, or indeed to a police officer, who might have to effect an arrest—and the distress would appear to have been caused by that person’s liberty having been restricted. In those circumstances, unless the individual has the defence that they were exercising proper control in the interests of the other person, they are at risk of being arrested and prosecuted. That would be a serious concern, would it not?

I should also add—I do not think this point is controversial—that there is an exemption within section 76 concerning under-16s. In other words, where people are in a position of responsibility for somebody who is under the age of 16 and may have to inhibit that person’s liberty, that is considered perfectly understandable and justified. The argument would therefore be this: why is it that in circumstances where, sadly, an individual is at risk and vulnerable, it should not be open to that carer—who everyone accepts is loving, decent and caring—to say that this was in the interests of the individual?

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s premise that it is possible that some people would seek to advance an unmeritorious defence. That is absolutely right, but I respectfully say to him that when he says, “The courts let them get away with it,” he is unfairly labelling the courts. In my opinion, the courts have shown themselves well able to see through a spurious defence. The carer who seeks to try it on and to abuse this proper defence will be given short shrift by a bench of magistrates, or indeed by a jury. We should trust juries and courts to do justice in each case.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Why does the Minister not think that the courts and juries can be trusted on the rough sex defence?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Because juries have to have a rough sex defence to consider. That is our job. Our job is to create the statute.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

No, it is not the same at all. If the hon. Lady will listen for a moment, the point is that there is, on the face of a statute, a defence that the jury can consider. They get to consider it only if a judge is satisfied that there is a prima facie defence—in other words, if what the defendant is advancing is patently and transparently unmeritorious, it may well not even go to a jury. A judge might say, “This is such a load of old nonsense that it doesn’t even cross the threshold for a jury to decide.” It is simply where there is a prima facie case. We should trust juries to say, “Is there something in that, or is there not?” It is not for us to adjudicate in every single case. Trust juries; trust the people. It is different from the point that the hon. Lady was making about rough sex, because there was a lacuna in the law. Our job is to fill the lacuna and then leave it to juries, who have shown for many centuries that they are well placed to do justice in a specific case.

I will make a final point on this issue, because I do not want to dwell too long on it. If the policy were not in place, there is a danger that the same people that the hon. Member for Hove quite properly wants to stand up for, and who we want to stand up for—namely, people with disabilities—could be disadvantaged if people take the view of, “Hold on a moment. By doing what I think is genuinely and objectively in the best interests of an individual, I am at risk of conviction, punishment and disgrace. Do you know what? Why on earth should I be doing that? Why should I be putting myself at risk in that way.” We have to ensure that we do not inadvertently, and despite the best intentions, find ourselves making life more difficult for the people we want to support.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

The Minister is a very effective advocate, but the bottom line is that all the agencies representing frontline victims and survivors are speaking with unanimity. They want the law changed and the new clause struck off, because they say it is affecting their service users. There is no organisation out there working with service users that is defending the clause; it is only him.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

With respect, that is not a fair characterisation. Parliament had the opportunity to consider the Bill in 2015. It went through Committee stage in this House, and it went through the House of Lords. It was Parliament’s will that it should exist. What is now being suggested, less than five years later, is that we should sweep away something that was there in the past. In my respectful submission, the case for that has not been made.

Of course, all matters are considered with care, particularly matters of this kind of sensitivity, but we have to be alive to the fact that sometimes, if we remove such a defence, we risk making the position far worse for the people we want to protect. We see that time and again when people are concerned that if they are not given the opportunity to advance their defence and simply to say, “Listen, you decide whether I have got this wrong.” If they do not have the option at least to put forward their defence so that 12 people who have no prior knowledge can make a fair decision, it would be unfair on them and would risk unfairness to people with disabilities.

The final point that I want to make is that the equivalent domestic abuse offence in Scotland contains a similar defence, under section 6 of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018, as does the proposed new domestic abuse offence in Northern Ireland, which is clause 12 of the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill, currently before the Northern Ireland Assembly. This is not an outlier provision, I respectfully submit.

Notwithstanding the very proper concerns expressed by the hon. Gentleman, I invite him to consider that, set in a wider context, seeking to exclude the provision is not necessary. In the light of my explanation, I invite him to withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice) 9:45 am, 17th June 2020

With your permission, Mr Bone, may I speak without a jacket on in this stuffy weather? I do not want to offend your sensibilities.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I have not been able to stop you so far.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

Thank you, Mr Bone.

We need to make progress today, and we have a lot to get through. I will withdraw the new clause, in the clear hope that, as the Bill progresses through Parliament and goes to the House of Lords, they may have more time to spend on such matters. They might be able to have more consideration and ventilation of the debate, which we were too speedy on today. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.