By Carla Fraser
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Coercive and Controlling Behaviour now a Criminal Offence

In February 2022, a new domestic abuse bill came into force in Northern Ireland with patterns of non-physical, psychological abuse and abusive behaviour now being against the law.

The specific offence of domestic abuse was introduced in March 2021 under section 1 of the Domestic and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021.  Its enactment represents a crucial development in Northern Ireland’s response to domestic abuse, therefore bringing Northern Ireland into line with other jurisdictions within the United Kingdom and Ireland, and with relevant human rights standards. 

It captures patterns of psychological, emotional, or financially abusive behaviour which is controlling and coercive in nature against a partner, former partner or close family member. It makes clear that coercive control is equally devastating and intolerable in its impact on the victim and children who witness same.

Coercive control can now be plead and relied upon in your statement in support of your application for Protection Orders. These applications can be made on an emergency basis without the perpetrator having notice of it if required. The legislation also prevents perpetrators of domestic abuse directly cross-examining their victims in criminal and family proceedings and ensure that special measures are available to them. These provisions will give greater protection to victims in court proceedings across the criminal and civil jurisdictions.

It is recognised that there are many forms of abuse and coercive control in addition to the signs of physical violence. Here is a brief guide to the five key signs of domestic abuse in relationships. 

  1. Physical

Having just said that there are many ways a person can be abusive, it is worth remembering that physical abuse does still exist.

It is, however, also worth remembering that people can pick up physical injuries in many ways other than abuse.

It’s also worth remembering that cunning abusers can use violence in ways which don’t show. In other words, always remember the context and be careful about jumping to conclusions.

  • Social

At a very basic level, there’s safety in numbers; it therefore follows that an isolated target is an easier one; hence abusers may try to stop, or at least limit, the extent to which their victim has contact with other people.

This also limits both the risk of other people noticing signs of abuse and the risk of the victim telling other people about their situation. It also makes it harder for the victim to leave since it means that they will have to strike out on their own without the benefit of a support network.

Therefore, a person who shows a reluctance to interact with others beyond what is strictly necessary could be an indication that they are in an abusive relationship.

It could, however, also be a sign that they are introverted and prefer either their own company or the company of their closest inner circle. Again, context is key.

  • Psychological

Psychological abuse can be harder to spot because it is often disguised as humour, and as we all know, humour is subjective. One giveaway that behaviour is abusive, however, is that the subject of the joke does not find it funny.

  • Financial

Financial abuse may be one of the most insidious forms of abuse since its very nature makes it extremely difficult to spot, especially in troubled economic times when many people are experiencing economic hardship for reasons which have absolutely nothing to do with their partner’s behaviour.

What’s more, even when a person’s financial issues are related to their partner’s behaviour. The behaviour may not be abusive, merely irresponsible, and potentially a sign that the two halves of the couple view money (very) differently and need either to find a way to reconcile those differences and agree a path forward, or to go their separate ways amicably.

  • Sexual

From the perspective of a third party, sexual abuse is likely to be almost impossible to spot unless it takes a form in which it also counts as physical abuse.

Realistically, the only way a third-party is likely to be able to identify a victim of sexual abuse is if the victim confides in them.

If you require assistance with any aspect of family law then the team at PA Duffy and Co Solicitors can help.

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