U.S. Advocates Have a Lot to Learn from French & UK Laws

One of the primary goals of this website is to advocate for policy change in the United States that recognizes the harms of coercive control. Currently, only physical violence against a victim is recognized as a crime, meaning that until bodily harm or injury occurs, victims have no legal protection. In fact, Dr. Evan Stark, whose book Coercive Control introduced the concept, argued "the primary outcome of coercive control is a condition of entrapment that can be hostage-like in the harms it inflicts on dignity, liberty, autonomy and personhood as well as to physical and psychological integrity." In short, Stark argued coercive control represents a human rights violation and a "liberty crime" against the victim. Other countries have created laws intended to protect victims from not just the physical harm they may (or may not) experience, but the emotional and psychological patterns of abuse utilized by many abusers.

A January 2018 article in the Huffington Post provides an overview of places where psychological abuse is outlawed. We think of psychological abuse as a prime tactic used in any coercive control pattern and are excited to see how laws meant to address this form of abuse are utilized in court systems. While there may be limitations to a bill that explicitly addresses coercive control, the implementation of these laws may be very informative as we work to strengthen current policy here in the United States. Below, we have included an introduction to relevant legislation in both France and the United Kingdom. We will continue to review the framework, implementation and analyses of these laws, which we hope to share with you in the near future.

FRANCE

In 2010, France banned “psychological violence within marriage”, becoming the first country to officially criminalize psychological abuse. The Library of Congress summarizes the Law on Violence Against Women, which among other protections for victims, includes psychological violence: 

“The Law also contains several criminal provisions aimed at reinforcing the fight against familial violence, including psychological violence. Harassing one's spouse, partner, or co-habitant by repeated acts that “degrade one's quality of life and cause a change in one's physical or mental state of health” is punishable by a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a €45,000 fine (about US$57,000), if that harassment resulted in an incapacity to work for eight days or less or does not result in any work incapacity. The penalty is increased to five years and a fine of €75,000 (about US$95,000) if the resulting incapacity to work is over eight days.”

At its introduction, an NPR story reported critics viewed the legislation as unnecessary and “would allow couples to be hauled in for having an argument.” One of the bill’s creators, Martine Billard, disagreed, arguing the law addressed a legitimate concern and would require a victim to prove “that the abuse is repeated and done with the intention of destroying the victim's dignity.”

Additional articles on the introduction of the French law:
French Bid to Ban Marital Abuse That's Psychological in Time Magazine
France Makes ‘Psychological Violence’ a Crime in The New York Times

UNITED KINGDOM

In 2017, the United Kingdom passed The Serious Crime Act 2015, criminalizing the use of controlling or coercive behavior in intimate or familial relationships. Carol A Lambert, MSW, reports in the Huffington Post that “the UK’s new law recognized a gap in the existing law and now includes patterns of coercive control by an intimate partner while still living together that can carry a maximum sentence of five years of imprisonment or a fine, or both.”

The UK's Independent highlighted changes to the law in a December 2015 article, shortly after the bill was passed. The article provides specific examples of behavior classified as "controlling, coercive" and an explanation that the law is only applicable in circumstances in which repeated, continuous and ongoing treatment produces a "serious effect" on the victim. Additionally, it lays out some of the initial responses to the law by those working with victims:

In opposition, Sandra Horley, the chief executive of Refuge, said she did not believe that criminalizing coercive control was the right solution. “We already have enough laws – the problem is that they are not being implemented properly,” she said. “The police don’t even arrest when there is evidence of serious physical violence, so how are police and juries ever going to understand complex concepts like coercive control?
“Controlling behaviour can be incredibly subtle, and isn’t always coercive. Extreme jealousy and possessiveness, for example, can be dressed up to look like care or concern. Providing evidence of such behaviours to satisfy criminal standards is likely to be extremely difficult.” 

However, Polly Neate, of Women’s Aid, strongly supported the new criminal offense, saying it was a significant step in protecting women experiencing domestic violence: “We welcome the home secretary’s announcement that the government will criminalise the patterns of coercive, controlling and psychologically abusive behaviour which lie at the heart of the abuse so many women experience,” she said. “We hope this new law will lead to a real culture change, so that every woman experiencing control can get the support she needs to break free safely.”

The implementation of these laws are an exciting development and represent an opportunity for advocates in the United States to learn how to be most effective in meeting victim's needs and best practices for direct service providers, police officers, hospital staff and legal professionals.

Written by Abigail Hazlett & Chelsea Brass