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Emotional abuse isn't normal - so make it a crime

WHEN Bill Walker was convicted of a string of domestic abuse charges, Sheriff Katherine Mackie described him as "controlling, domineering, demeaning and belittling".

At the time she said that, however unacceptable that behaviour was, it did not amount to a criminal offence. What did were assaults that included slapping and punching ex-wife Diana in the face, assaulting his second wife Anne, and hitting his stepdaughter over the head with a saucepan. But it is gradually becoming recognised that physical violence is often just the tip of an iceberg of coercive controlling behaviour, which also includes stripping away freedoms, autonomy and sense of self.

That has been recognised by the Scottish Government, which defines domestic abuse as "any form of physical, sexual or mental and emotional abuse which might about to criminal conduct". England and Wales last year also expanded their definition.

Last week, when Theresa May announced a consultation to look at the creation of a domestic abuse offence for England and Wales that would incorporate non-violent behaviour, such as psychological and financial control, the plan was widely belittled. Headlines declared this would be a law to jail bullying husbands, when in fact it was designed with no gender bias. Online commentators seemed quick to dismiss it as interference in the everyday ups and downs of consenting adults' personal lives. But for May, the move was an attempt to look at whether "current law on domestic abuse needs to be strengthened to offer better protection to victims".

Partly, the legislation would be designed to influence police in England and Wales, who have failed to deal with abuse, particularly its non-violent form, as a crime of any seriousness. But also, the consultation paper declares it hopes that such legislation "may help victims identify the behaviour they are suffering is wrong and encourage them to report it, and cause perpetrators to rethink their controlling behaviour".

Admittedly, a law criminalising the manipulations that go on behind closed doors may be difficult to enforce, and one wonders how many successful prosecutions would come out of it, or if it would be abused. But by focusing on the minor naggings seen in almost all relationships, critics fail to see the bigger picture. What is being talked about is a cumulative pattern of behaviour, horrifying sustained non-physical abuse.

Often these behaviours feature in the backdrop of violent domestic abuse. In Walker's case, he would approve or disapprove of the clothes his first wife would wear, and while they lived in France told her that her "place was in the kitchen".

We have also seen such controlling dynamics in some of the most horrifying murder cases. The trial in England of Ben Blakeley for the murder of teenager Jayden Parkinson revealed that he was not only violent towards her and to other girlfriends, he also controlled money and personal assets, including mobile phones, told her what to wear and when to shower. Ex-girlfriends testifying to his previous behaviour were asked, in typical victim-blaming fashion: "Why did you put up with it?"

We can all tell tales of minor naggings and badgerings - my husband occasionally throws a wobbly because I seem to be incapable of putting lids back on things properly. But that's not the kind of behaviour May's legislation would be aimed at.

Too many of May's critics say that victims should simply leave. Of course, leaving an entrapping relationship is a good idea and victims should be empowered to do so - but such comments also form part of a dialogue of blame, in which we focus more on what the victims (which still tend more often to be women than men) are doing wrong.

In Scotland, in our approach to domestic abuse, we are running behind England and Wales on some fronts. They had many specialist domestic abuse courts before we had any. Clare's Law, which gives people a right to find out if their partner has a history of domestic violence, is only being piloted in Aberdeen and Ayrshire in November, after having been rolled out in England and Wales earlier this year. But on one level, we have until now been ahead: the fact that domestic abuse included coercive behaviours. We long ago replaced "domestic violence" with "domestic abuse". Police Scotland has also set up a Domestic Abuse Task Force.

However, this doesn't mean that our record on reducing abuse is much better. Nor does it mean that we already have a law equivalent to May's proposal, which explicitly recognises the status of non-physical bullying as domestic abuse. But there are already clear messages that any form of mental or emotional abuse is not to be tolerated.

I applaud May's move. It sends out a message that we don't tolerate such abuse; that no-one should have to put up with it; that this is not normal, and that, though the occasional verbal assault or criticism of one's friends, clothing or behaviour is par for the course, and that a systematic or repeated pattern of threat-laced control is not normal.

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