Yes, you can be “strong” and still be a victim of coercive control

A judge said Lauren Smith was too “strong and capable” to be affected by the behaviour of her ex-boyfriend. 

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For three years, it has been a crime to control someone close to you in your life. When the legislation was passed in December 2015, professionals and survivors hoped that the criminal justice system finally understood the impact and seriousness of this kind of behaviour. Anyone who has been a victim of abuse, or seen it first hand, knows power and control are at the heart of it. But to see it written down in law was a positive step to taking it seriously and, crucially, holding the perpetrator to account.

Three years later, we see once again that legislation alone is not the answer. A recent court case considered the experience of Lauren Smith, whose ex-boyfriend spat in her face and taught her one-year-old son to call her a “slag” and a “slut”. But in her ruling, judge Helen Cousins described Lauren Smith, as too “strong and capable” to be affected by the behaviour of the perpetrator, despite the court being satisfied that control and coercion did occur within the relationship. “There’s no doubt the victim is a strong and capable woman, whose evidence was truthful. She has since successfully removed herself from the harmful situation,” Cousins said. “It is to her credit that I cannot find the defendant’s behaviour had a serious effect on her in the context of the guidelines for this offence.” 

These comments show a worrying misunderstanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse.

First, to convict a perpetrator of common assault, but not controlling and coercive behaviour misses the intrinsic link between these crimes. Perpetrators are often physically violent as part of their campaign of control, but the physical violence is not an isolated incident: it is one of many behaviours used by a perpetrator to abuse their partner. A perpetrator does not spit at his girlfriend because he has lost his temper or due to one-off urge to do something physical. It is part of a pattern of behaviour, which in Smith’s case included not allowing her to see her friends, tracking her every move and locking her in the house.

Second, the judge used the fact Smith had left her partner as context as to why the court couldn’t convict the perpetrator. As a society, we put huge amounts on pressure on women to leave, rather than holding the perpetrator responsible – how often have you heard the phrase, “why doesn’t she just leave?” It seems women cannot win. If they don’t leave they are blamed for letting the abuse continue. If they do leave the perpetrator is less likely to be held accountable. We must stop judging a victim’s ability to leave (in itself a moment of extremely high risk when trying to break free of a controlling situation) and start looking at the perpetrator.

Third, this analysis of Lauren’s strength is entirely subjective and plays into the narrative of what a “perfect victim” should look like. Survivors are often trying to navigate a complex life of looking after children, holding down a job – being a mother, sister, friend – all while their partner or ex-partner seeks to make their life harder and harder by trying to control who they see and what they do and punishing them if they make one “wrong move”. That does require incredible strength. The number of women who then, after this experience, speak out through the courts or as campaigners is commendable. But that is not to say that the impact of abuse is not long-term or profound. A woman can speak out and still be struggling with her mental health as a result of the abuse. We know that abused women are four times more likely to experience depression than women who have not been abused and experience multiple physical health impacts.

So this is not about strength or weakness. It’s about understanding the long-term impact. Mental health implications may not always be visible, as well as the impact on someone’s financial wellbeing and overall security.

Judge Cousins’ misjudged comments are not a one-off. They are reflective of wider public opinion about how a victim or survivor should act. How should a rape survivor react? How should anyone react when they are a victim of crime? Domestic abuse survivors will all have different coping strategies and ways of presenting – because they are as varied and complex as everyone else.

We need a radical change to the way courts approach domestic abuse. We are calling for domestic abuse victims to have access to specialist Domestic Violence Courts, alongside training for all judges and frontline professionals throughout the court system. We know 80 per cent of victims never call the police – they do not trust the criminal justice response to listen to them, respect them and work with them to ensure justice is done. Lauren Smith did everything we ask survivors to do: she left the perpetrator, she got support through a domestic abuse service and then she pursued justice through the courts. And then her ex-partner benefited from these brave, commendable decisions taken by the woman he abused.

SafeLives, alongside thousands of other organisations and survivors, is awaiting the Domestic Abuse Bill from the Home Office and Ministry of Justice. The public consultation was launched earlier this year, with the ambition that the subsequent bill would transform the response to domestic abuse. Cases such as Lauren’s demonstrate the need for such a “transformation”, but this will not be a result of some well–intentioned words on a page. Professionals such as judge Cousins will not improve their understanding of the dynamics of abuse due to new legalisation, if the view remains that a victim’s perceived response to criminal action is relevant to the conviction. Only investment, training and leadership throughout the courts and in our society at large can dismantle some of those misconceptions and ideas of what a victim should look and sound like.

Domestic abuse survivors are not “weak” – they are some of the strongest, most determined women I have ever met.

Suzanne Jacob is the chief executive of SafeLives.