Abusers face five years in jail under new non-fatal strangulation offence

Non-fatal strangulation is to be made a specific criminal offence punishable by up to five years in prison under an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill being tabled this week.

Mar 1, 2021
By Paul Jacques

It follows concerns from campaigners, led by Baroness Newlove, that perpetrators were avoiding punishment as strangulation can often leave no visible injury, making it harder to prosecute under existing offences such as ABH (actual bodily harm).

The act typically involves an abuser strangling or intentionally affecting their victim’s breathing in an attempt to control or intimidate them.

According to Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird, and Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs, more than a quarter of all female homicides are by strangulation and non-fatal strangulation is widely recognised as a risk indicator . They say victims are “seven times more likely to be killed at the hands of their partner if they have previously been non-fatally strangled”.

Baroness Newlove put forward the amendment last month when the Bill went to the House of Lords.

The amendment will make it an offence to intentionally strangle another person or do any other act that affects a person’s ability to breathe.

It is one of a number of changes being proposed to the Domestic Abuse Bill this week.

The Government said today (March 1) that it will also strengthen legislation around controlling or coercive behaviour – no longer making it a requirement for abusers and victims to live together. The change follows a government review which highlighted that those who leave abusive ex-partners can often be subjected to sustained or increased controlling or coercive behaviour post-separation.

Meanwhile, so-called ‘revenge porn’ laws – introduced by the Government in 2015 – will be widened to include threats to disclose intimate images with the intention to cause distress. More than 900 abusers have been convicted since revenge porn was outlawed but ministers are determined to further protect victims, with those who threaten to share such images facing up to two years behind bars.

The Law Commission says it would like to see the law go further, with taking and sharing intimate images without consent expanded to include ‘downblousing’ and so-called ‘deepfakes’ (https://www.policeprofessional.com/news/reforms-needed-to-plug-significant-gaps-in-law-on-intimate-image-abuse/)

Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland QC said the Bill provides “a once-in-a-generation opportunity” to strengthen the response to domestic abuse and its many forms.

“From outlawing non-fatal strangulation to giving better protections in court – we are delivering the support victims need to feel safer while ensuring perpetrators face justice for the torment they have inflicted,” he added.

Safeguarding Minister Victoria Atkins said: “The Domestic Abuse Bill is a game-changing piece of legislation that will help millions of people who are subjected to many different forms of abuse.

“Controlling or coercive behaviour is an insidious form of domestic abuse that can destroy lives.

“Since we introduced the offence within the Serious Crime Act 2015, controlling and coercive behaviour recorded offences and prosecutions have increased year on year, but we have listened to concerns and understand that perpetrators of this behaviour can continue to abuse their victims when they no longer live together.

“I am pleased that the offence is being extended so we can protect more victims and send a clear message to perpetrators.”

A Home Office review published on Monday (March 1) said while the number of controlling and coercive behaviour offences recorded by the police has increased – from 4,2461 in 2016/17 to 24,8562 in 2019/20 – with 1,112 defendants prosecuted in 2019 (up 18 per cent on the previous year), there is still room for improvement in “understanding, identifying and evidencing” the crime.

The Home Office says it is likely that only a small proportion of all offences comes to the attention of the police or is recorded as controlling and coercive behaviour, and charge rates remain relatively low.

The Government is also tabling a number of other amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill which will:

  • Provide special measures in civil courts similar to those available in family courts. This could include the use of protective screens in court or the ability to give evidence via video links to support vulnerable courts users;
  • Make it easier for victims who may prefer not to report abuse to avoid being cross-examined in person, by widening the list of evidence to prove abuse has occurred to include things such as a letter from a doctor or an employer;
  • Clarify the use of ‘barring orders’ in the family courts to prevent abusive ex-partners from repeatedly dragging their victims back to court – which can be used as a form of continuing domestic abuse; and
  • Require public authorities conducting domestic homicide reviews to send a copy of their completed reports to the Domestic Abuse Commissioner – strengthening the opportunity to learn lessons and prevent future deaths.

Hetti Barkworth-Nanton, chair of Refuge said: “This is a significant moment for women experiencing domestic abuse who have been threatened with the sharing of their private intimate images and we are thrilled that the government has recognised the need for urgent change. Our research found that one in seven young women have experienced these threats to share, with the overwhelming majority experiencing them from a current or former partner, alongside other forms of abuse.

“The Domestic Abuse Bill provides the perfect legislative vehicle for this change, and the Government has acted quickly and decisively. This is a victory for women and girls and testimony to the power of working together for change.”

Dr Nicola Sharp-Jeffs OBE, founder and chief executive officer of Surviving Economic Abuse said: “We’re absolutely delighted the Government is criminalising post-separation abuse via an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill.

“By doing so, victims will receive the recognition they need and deserve. Post-separation abuse is a devastating form of coercive control and the economic abuse elements of this can continue for decades.

“Legislation is the first essential step on the path to eradicating it and preventing future homicides.”

The Domestic Abuse Bill will begin its Report Stage on Monday March 8, with Royal Assent expected in the spring.

The Home Office is also allocating £500,000 to fund research into domestic abuse perpetrators. The aim is to develop an understanding of offenders and strengthen the evidence base for what works in addressing their behaviour.

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