Just five people were convicted of a form of domestic abuse called ‘controlling and coercive’ behaviour in Leicestershire last year despite hundreds of incidents being reported to police.
Coercive control became a specific criminal offence in 2015 but the number of convictions compared with the number of reported incidents is staggeringly low across the UK.
Domestic abuse charities said the introduction of this offence was a big step forward in recognising abuse as more than punches, kicks and physical violence, but the criminal justice system needed to do more to support survivors.
Figures from the Ministry of Justice show that in 2020, five people in the county pleaded or were found guilty of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate of family relationship.
Reports to Leicestershire Police rose significantly from 245 in 2018/18 to 395 in 2019/20. But there were only three convictions in 2019 and five in 2020.
Of those convicted in Leicestershire in 2020, all five of them were men. Two were jailed, one received a sentence between two and three years, while two were given suspended sentences.
One other was awaiting sentence when the figures were compiled.
Controlling behaviour is defined as a range of acts designed to make a person feel ‘subordinated and/or dependent’ by isolating them.
While coercive behaviour includes assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation.
It is a form of domestic abuse, and if someone continually acts in this way towards a partner or family member, knowing that the behaviour is having a serious effect on the victim, then it is considered an offence.
The behaviours might include isolating a person from their friends and family, monitoring them, telling them where they can go, who they can see, what to wear and when they can sleep, repeatedly putting them down, forcing the victim to take part in criminal activity, neglect or abuse of children, controlling finances, and making threats.
Ruth Davison, chief executive of domestic violence charity Refuge, said court delays due to Covid-19 were a huge barrier, potentially causing survivors of domestic abuse to lose faith in the system and even consider dropping their cases.
However, she said, the failures run deeper than just the practical issues seen in the last year.
She said: “Time and again Refuge hears of police failings in gathering evidence of coercive control and that the burden of responsibility of gathering this evidence often falls on the shoulders of survivors, which can later impact the strength of a case in court
“Refuge also knows that criminal trials can often be overwhelming and traumatic for survivors, with magistrates showing a lack of understanding of the dynamics of abuse.
“What survivors of abuse now need, is for the police to thoroughly investigate cases of coercive control and for courts to better support survivors of this crime.
“We must see change. This change will need to start from a better understanding of what domestic abuse is, its forms and how it affects women and children.”
Across England and Wales, 24,856 incidents were reported to police in 2019/20, up from 17,616 in 2018/19.
But despite the rising figures, just 374 people were convicted of coercive control in 2020.
Lucy Hadley, head of policy, campaigns and public affairs at Women’s Aid, said: “The criminal justice system is failing women who experience coercive control – with a lack of understanding about the nature of the crime, delays and backlogs, and poor support throughout the process as key reasons that cases do not proceed.
“It remains vital that all judges, prosecutors and police officers truly understand coercive control and are confident in investigating, evidencing and prosecuting this crime.
“The proportion of cases that are closed due to evidential difficulties are really concerning, and training is essential to ensure that the police and others are delivering the right response.
“Professionals need to understand that coercive control is often invisible and the need to evidence the controlling behaviour and the serious effects that it has on survivors is paramount to bringing perpetrators to justice.”
She said Women’s Aid works with the College of Policing and other organisations to deliver a training programme for police forces.
That has a specific focus on ensuring police officers understand coercive control and can respond effectively to survivors – with a need need to roll out this and similar training more widely.
Of those convicted nationally last year, 364 were men – including two aged between 15 and 17, while seven were aged between 18 and 20 – and seven were women.
Of those convicted, 206 were sentenced to jail or a young offenders institute, while 68 received suspended sentences.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said it can only consider cases that have been referred to it following a police investigation.
It has published guidance for prosecutors that includes a list of examples of what may constitute controlling or coercive behaviour.
A CPS spokesperson said: “We recognise the devastating impact that controlling and coercive behaviour can have on victims and will always prosecute cases when our legal test is met.
“Since it became an offence in 2015 the number of people we have prosecuted has gone up each year and so has the number who plead guilty or are found guilty after a trial.
“We encourage victims to report abusers to the police so action can be taken.”
Leicestershire Police say they are continuing to work on raising awareness of these issues.
Detective Chief Inspector Lucy Batchelor said: “Leicestershire Police has a dedicated Domestic Abuse Investigation Unit who respond to and investigate all high risk reports of domestic abuse which are made – including reports of coercive and controlling behaviour.
“Officers are trained to spot the signs relating to different forms of abuse, to carry out enquiries into reports made and to ensure safeguarding is in place for victims. The force continues to deliver this training to ensure that awareness continues to be raised in relation to the issue. We also work with partner agencies to help provide advice and support.
“As with all offences there is an evidential threshold to be met before a person can be charged with the offence of controlling and coercive behaviour. In cases of domestic abuse we have a duty to refer to the Crown Prosecution Service for charging decisions and we work closely with them to achieve successful prosecutions.
“The force will also consider a range of offences in each case. Therefore in some cases, while a charge of coercive and controlling behaviour may not be made, other charges may be secured against the suspect which we have been able to meet the evidential threshold for.
“In cases where we cannot achieve a prosecution, other options will also be considered such as Domestic Violence Protection Notices and disclosures under the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme in order to safeguard victims. We always provide support to victims of domestic abuse and work closely with specialist support services to achieve this.
“We would urge anyone who is a victim of any form of domestic abuse to speak with someone about this and to make contact with us. Full support will be provided to you throughout the investigation and specialist help can be provided. You can contact police by calling 101 or reporting online here. Always call 999 in an emergency.”
You can also contact United Against Violence and Abuse (UAVA) by calling 0808 8020028. Text support is also available by texting 07715 994962.