Gemma Lindfield on Domestic Abuse

Gemma Lindfield wrote this article for The Brief, following the recent trial on the radio programme, The Archers, which attracted a lot of attention. She has some good advice for lawyers whose advice is sought on matters of domestic abuse.

“In the fictional world of Ambridge, the villagers supporting Helen Titchener will be popping champagne corks after her acquittal on charges of attempted murder and wounding with intent. Helen’s alleged victim was her controlling, abusive husband Rob. Her case was one of self-defence.

The storyline in the Archers has brought much-needed attention to the prevalence of domestic violence and the mechanics that operate to keep a victim in an abusive relationship: coercive control. This is a pattern of behaviour whereby an abuser seeks to curb their victim’s freedom in such a way that their sense of self is stripped away.

Back in reality, at the end of last week it was revealed that two-thirds of domestic violence refuges are under threat of closure. This is simply unacceptable. Statistically, a woman exiting a violent relationship is 75 per cent more likely to be killed than those who stay.

As Archers listeners and indeed this government will be aware when it criminalised coercive control last year, leaving is very difficult. Coercive control was the reason that those attending Lower Loxley’s New Year’s Eve ball in 2014 were struck by Helen’s frumpy new hairstyle and dress. They were not aware that Rob had chosen her outfit, eschewing her choice as too revealing.

Control can also be financial so that a victim has all financial decisions made for her. And it will almost always involve isolating a victim from family and friends, by manufacturing rifts and fissures in the victim’s support network.

One devastating method is “gaslighting”, a manipulation calculated to make a victim feel as though they are going mad. This allows the abuser to appear the reasonable party in the relationship. The term derives from a film in which the abusive husband deliberately dims the gaslights in the house but tells his wife that she is imagining it.

Social media and technology are yet more tools in an abuser’s playbook, whether by limiting access or using it to destabilise the victim.

The police need more training in the core and central themes of domestic abuse. Frankly, there is no point having an offence of coercive control if it is not understood by those having to put it into practice.

So what can lawyers do? Be slow to write off behaviour under any synonym for hysterical. Educate ourselves and others about the pernicious nature of coercive control and its important place in understanding domestic abuse. We must recognise that domestic abuse can exist in our high net worth individual’s relationships as well as those lower down the economic spectrum.

Gemma Lindfield is a senior-junior barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill chambers in London, and ambassador for the Sharan Project, a UK charity for the vulnerable.