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"Isolated incidents": how the laws around domestic violence are failing its victims

An investigation into the murder of Natalie Esack by her estranged husband reveals it followed a campaign of terror waged by a man who could not countenance finally losing control over his victim. But police and prosecutors can only respond to individuals threats and acts of violence. It's time for a change in the law.

A memorial to French victims of domestic violence. Photo: Getty
A memorial to French victims of domestic violence. Photo: Getty

On the 30 April 2012, a former police detective called Ivan Esack killed his estranged wife, Natalie.

Esack walked into Natalie's hair salon in Ashford, Kent, just after nine in the morning, and stabbed her eleven times with a kitchen knife. He stabbed her with “such ferocity, the 8in blade bent and the tip broke off”. For this, he was sentenced to 28 years in prison. Reports from the time dubbed Natalie a “tragic hairdresser”.

Women murdered by men are often described by the media as tragic. There is a sense in that word of catastrophe, of horror, of something out of the ordinary. Something that could not have been prevented. Perhaps that word gives us a sense of comfort in the face of such brutality. This could not have been predicted, there is nothing we could have done. This is a freak accident.

Such words may comfort us, but they are dangerous, and our comfort comes at a cost of reckoning with a reality that we must face if we are serious about tackling the epidemic of domestic violence. And make no mistake: it is an epidemic. The prevalence of domestic abuse means that in some countries 40-70 per cent of female murder victims are killed by a husband or boyfriend, according to the UN. It is an epidemic to which we are so inured that the steady reports of abuse, of beatings, of assaults, of imprisonment, of death, barely register. They are not front-page news. After all, to put it bluntly, “man kills partner”, is not news. It is the opposite of new. It is old. Tragically old.

Last week a Domestic Homicide Review - a multi-agency investigation - into Natalie's murder was released. Like so many before it, the review found that this death was not a freak occurrence that could not have been prevented. Rather, it found “evidence of escalating abuse towards [Natalie Esack] in the six months before her death and risk factors in [Ivan Esack's] behaviour”.

A report from Paladin, the National Stalking Advocacy Service, reveals that the risk factors were observable more than six months prior to her murder. The relationship was abusive “from early on”, with Esack belittling and demeaning Natalie in an effort to keep her pliable and under his control. She was not allowed to leave the house without his permission and had to “check in” with him constantly. Nevertheless, she managed to leave the relationship on more than one occasion – but found herself on the receiving end of incessant calls and messages, alternately abusive and pleading, that would go on, one after the other, until she finally gave in and replied. At one point he was calling her more than forty time a day. He would turn up at her work, at her home, threatening, intimidating, pleading. When Natalie finally left for good and started seeing someone new, Esack told her that “she was a dead woman walking”. “Tick-tock, tick-tock”, he texted her. In one telephone conversation, he presented Natalie with her options: “Death, death, death”. Natalie contacted the police four times about Esack. No action was taken. He was classified as “medium risk”.

No one considering the evidence in full can come to any conclusion other than that this was a campaign of terror waged by a man who could not countenance finally losing control over his victim. But that was exactly the problem: the evidence was not considered holistically. All of Natalie's reports of Esack's violence or threats were treated by the police as separate incidents. This may sounds like police incompetence. But it is also a failure of law.

At present, domestic violence itself is not a crime. The Crown Prosecution Service prosecutes perpetrators under assault, burglary, rape, kidnapping. They prosecute single incidents of physical violence, and tend to focus on injury level. The law as it stands allows them to do little else: it provides no remit to recognise a victim of domestic abuse as suffering from an ongoing campaign of coercive control. Rather, she has been punched; she has been thrown down the stairs; she has been stabbed. Tragically. Unpredictably. She has been killed.

Tthis week, the campaign organisation Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse released figures to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary National Oversight Group which clearly show that the more high-risk the case, the greater the likelihood and severity of coercive and controlling behaviour. This data confirms Paladin's claim that it is in the cases where coercive control is present that victims are most likely to be murdered.

In 2013, the Home Office updated its definition of domestic violence to include coercive control, but there has been no corresponding change in the law. Some of the most dangerous cases, although known to the police - although preventable - are continuing to feed the drip-drip-drip of tragic isolated incidents. As the government heads into recess, they might like to listen to those campaigning for a change in the law to allow police and prosecutors to look beyond each individual incident, and think about turning off the tap.

Update, 7 August 2014: This article originally referred to domestic violence as "the largest cause of morbidity in women aged 19-44". However, this was not contained in the WHO report cited as the source. The article was amended to state that “in some countries 40-70 per cent of female murder victims are killed by a husband or partner”, a statistic contained within the report in question.