The ‘Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill’ currently being debated in the Assembly will be a welcome, and long overdue, addition to Northern Ireland’s existing legislation.
When passed, coercive control will be added to the list of domestic abuse offences which can be prosecuted in the courts.
Coercive control includes psychological, emotional or financial abuse and non-violent intimidation.
While that has long been a key characteristic of domestic abuse, up until now, it has not been a specific crime. Coercive control, can involve several types of abuse including:
- Being told what to wear
- Being isolated from friends and family
- Having money taken away or controlled
- Having social media accounts monitored or controlled, or
- Being threatened with violence to behave in a certain way
The new Bill however falls short in a number of areas. It does not include stalking as a specific offence, for example, and it makes no provision for the appointment of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner, a post already in place in England and Wales.
A Domestic Abuse Commissioner for Northern Ireland would ensure that public bodies and Government Ministers were obliged to cooperate and respond the Commissioner’s recommendations on domestic abuse initiatives. A Commissioner would also carry out research, work with public authorities and voluntary organisations, and raise public awareness of domestic abuse.
The Commissioner’s office would also be able to advocate for specialist domestic abuse services such as refuges or specialist victim services.
Domestic abuse legislation has already been affected by the collapse of the Assembly. Now that there is an opportunity to make up for lost time the new legislation needs to be as comprehensive and effective as possible.
Legislating for a Domestic Abuse Commissioner would signal the Executive’s intent that the new legislation is to be taken seriously and that there is still much to be done