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With new legislation recently passed by the Scottish Government, the country has become the first in the world to criminalise coercive and controlling behaviour.


Domestic abuse is one of the most common issues encountered by social workers. For those who don't work in the social care system, the term domestic abuse has traditionally been synonymous with domestic physical violence. However, as any social worker will tell you, psychological and emotional abuse can be equally serious, yet it has been notoriously difficult to prosecute perpetrators using existing criminal law.

In Scotland things have changed. A new law, passed by the Scottish Government in February, has created a specific offence of 'abusive behaviour in relation to a partner or ex-partner'. This includes psychological abuse, such as coercive or controlling behaviour. The Scottish Government has also given £165,000 to Scottish Women's Aid to fund training and promote understanding of coercive control and other forms of domestic abuse.

In 2016-17, 58,810 incidents of domestic abuse were recorded in Scotland, an increase of 1% on the previous year. Police Scotland defines domestic abuse as 'any form of physical, sexual or mental and emotional abuse that might amount to criminal conduct'. However, it's only with the passing of the new Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill that psychological and emotional abuse officially becomes a criminal offence.

According to the Police Scotland statistics, 79% of all incidents of domestic abuse in Scotland involved a female victim and a male accused. Coercive control is often used by men as a strategy to gain dominance over a female partner. As well as actual or threatened violence, it can comprise humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten the victim. It's designed to make the woman totally dependent on her partner by isolating her from family or friends, depriving her of independence and controlling her day-to-day actions.

Experts have likened coercive control to being taken hostage. In his seminal book on the subject, forensic social worker Professor Evan Stark offers a chilling definition of what it's like to suffer at the hands of a perpetrator: "The victim becomes captive in an unreal world created by the abuser, entrapped in a world of confusion, contradiction and fear."

"This Bill has the potential to positively transform the way we respond to survivors and to challenge outdated attitudes regarding domestic abuse," wrote Lydia House of the charity Zero Tolerance in a blog post on the Scottish Women's Aid website. "For the first time in Scotland, the legal understanding of domestic abuse will expand beyond the narrow definition of abuse as one incident of violence to an understanding that recognises ongoing patterns of abuse. Our laws will criminalise the insidious and coercive methods that abusers use to control their victims and therefore more accurately reflect the lived experiences of survivors."
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