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Taking Control of Controlling Behaviour

View profile for Antonia Mee
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This week, for the first time, a man has been jailed for causing his former girlfriend’s death by suicide through his coercive and controlling behaviour. The mother of three had only been in a relationship with the man since March 2017. She endured physical assaults and emotional abuse by him. She told third parties that he was abusive, jealous, possessive and controlling. He would call her names and accuse her of being unfaithful. He had caused her a significant head injury when she had gone out not telling him where she had gone.

This legislation came into force in December 2015 with the first person being jailed for coercive and controlling offences in September 2016.  In that case, the man told his girlfriend what she could and could not wear and physically assaulted her to the point that she stopped doing her hair and wearing make-up.

The interesting difference about this legislation from other legislation to protect abused spouses and former partners is that these offenders were jailed without their victim giving evidence against them. The cases were taken forward by the Crown Prosecution Service without the assistance of the victim.

Sometimes in these relationships where excessive control by one party is at work, the victim can have significant changes in his or her mood as a result. In the case of the woman who committed suicide, friends and family said she went from being a positive and outgoing person to an anxious, quiet and isolated person over a relatively short period of time.

Abuse such as this may be perpetrated by men or women with personality disorders.  What is a personality disorder?  Well everybody has a personality and is somewhere on a spectrum of personality types. However, where long-lasting, rigid patterns of thought and behaviour are pervasive and cause serious problems and issues in that person’s life, he or she may have a personality disorder. These can only be diagnosed by medical professionals.

There is a lot of talk in the media and popular psychology about personality disorders such as anti-social personality disorder (akin to but arguably with differences to psychopathy), narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder.

As solicitors, we sometimes have clients whose spouses may have been diagnosed with one of these personality disorders or they suspect their spouse may be affected by one. It is important that we are familiar with the characteristics of these personality disorders and the effect they can have on our clients’ lives and the divorce and marriage breakdown process. We can help them apply to the Court for orders to protect them under the Family Law Act 1996 such as non-molestation orders (injunctions preventing the abusive spouse from contacting or pestering the abused spouse) and occupation orders (regulating the occupation of the family home if there is a risk of harm to our clients or any children).  We can tailor our strategy in court proceedings and negotiations to try to get the best result for our clients notwithstanding their former partner or spouse’s difficult behaviour. However, the 2015 legislation concerning controlling and coercive behaviour means that the police and CPS may take matters into their own hands now and our clients may not be involved in the prosecuting of their abusive spouse or former partner.  We are able to provide advice to our clients about whether they should be notifying the police about controlling or coercive behaviour from which they are suffering or whether the more appropriate approach might be for them to retain an element of control over the protective measures they are seeking and, if necessary, apply for an injunction under the Family Law Act 1996.