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Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

The Archers and the law on domestic abuse

The Archers and the law on domestic abuse


Helen Greenfield considers how new legislation criminisalising controlling or coercive behaviour in a family relationship could have applied to a recent storyline on the Radio 4 soap

It is definitely a sign of my age that I now listen to The Archers religiously every week. I remember hearing the familiar theme tune wafting upstairs once I'd been put to bed when I was younger and thinking I would never turn into one of those people - but
I have.

Whether I did or not, however, I think I would have been hard pushed to avoid the recent storyline involving Helen Archer and her husband, Rob Titchener.

The story of Rob's insidious and subtle emotional abuse of Helen was difficult to listen to. Over two and a half years, it finally pushed Helen to stab him. We still do not know how things will be resolved, but was this the only way out for Helen? Could she have made a better decision if she were able?According to the editor of
The Archers, it is not entirely coincidental that, on 29 December 2015, section 76
of the Serious Crime Act 2015 came into force. This created
a new offence criminalising controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship, where the behaviour has a serious effect on the victim.

This was introduced with a view to closing a perceived
gap in the law relating to patterns of controlling or coercive behaviour that can occur during a relationship where individual events would not be sufficient to constitute an offence. It recognises the harm and cumulative impact on the victim which can be caused by such behaviour and the fact that a repeated pattern of abuse can often be more harmful than a single incident of violence.
A key part of the offence is therefore that the behaviour
on the part of the perpetrator takes place repeatedly or continuously.Under section 76, it is an offence for a person (A) when:

  • A repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards another person (B) that is controlling or coercive;

  • At the time of the behaviour, A and B are personally connected (either A is in an intimate personal relationship with B, or A and B live together and are either members of the same family or have previously been in an intimate personal relationship together);

  • The behaviour has a serious effect on B (either it causes B to fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against them, or it causes B serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on B's usual day-to-day activities); and

  • A knows or ought to know that the behaviour will have a serious effect on B (this is an objective test).

There is a non-exhaustive list of possible coercive or controlling behaviour in the statutory guidance produced by the Home Office, which includes:

  • Isolating a person from their friends and family;

  • Depriving them of their basic needs;

  • Monitoring their time;

  • Monitoring a person via online communication tools or using spyware;

  • Taking control over aspects of their everyday life, such as where they can go, who they can see, what to wear, and when they can sleep;

  • Depriving them of access to support services;

  • Repeatedly putting them down;

  • Enforcing rules and activity which humiliate, degrade, or dehumanise the victim;

  • Forcing the victim to take part in criminal activity;

  • Financial abuse, including control of finances;

  • Threats to hurt or kill;

  • Threats to a child;

  • Threats to reveal or publish private information;

  • Assault;

  • Criminal damage;

  • Rape; and

  • Preventing a person from having access to transport or from working.

The maximum penalty on summary conviction of the offence is six months' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. On the commencement of section 154(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the maximum sentence on summary conviction will rise to 12 months. The maximum penalty on conviction on indictment is five years' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.

It would be easy to read this and think that, yes, Helen would have been far better off getting herself a solicitor and sorting things out using this new legislation. But her inability to make such rational decisions is all part of the abuse. The fact that Helen assaulted Rob means that we are now able to examine what the courts make of these domestic, behind-closed-doors matters, as a result of which two women a week are killed and thousands more affected.

It must be right that these issues are being raised and talked about, and that such behaviour can now be recognised as an offence.

Helen Greenfield is an associate at Family Law in Partnership @FLiPltd