Holyrood debates domestic abuse law

Abuse Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Ministers said the new law would tackle prolonged psychological abuse

Scotland is to become one of the first countries in the world to criminalise psychological abuse, Holyrood has heard.

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson was speaking as MSPs debated the new Domestic Abuse Bill in the Scottish Parliament.

He used the debate to condemn the "pernicious, coercive and controlling behaviour" of perpetrators.

Police Scotland recorded almost 60,000 cases of domestic abuse in 2014-15.

The majority (79%) of cases involved a male perpetrator and a female victim.

The new bill will create a specific offence of "abusive behaviour in relation to a partner or ex-partner".

And it will also include proposals to ensure psychological abuse, such as coercive and controlling behaviour, can be effectively prosecuted.

The proposals have been given the backing in principle by opposition politicians.

Mr Matheson told MSPs of some of the "horrendous" types of behaviour victims can be forced to endure - but which cannot currently be prosecuted by the courts.

He said perpetrators "may not necessarily use physical violence against their partner or even overt threats", but they could "behave in a highly-controlling, abusive way over a long period of time".

The Justice Secretary continued: "Examples of what abusers may do to humiliate their partners are horrendous.

"For example, abusers may force them to eat food off the floor, control access to the toilet, repeatedly put them down and tell them they are worthless.

"Abusers also try to control every aspect of their partner's life, by, for example, preventing them from attending work or college, stopping them making contact with family or friends, giving them no or limited access to money, checking or controlling their use of their phone and social media."

'Ordinary arguments'

He said where this behaviour is not accompanied by physical violence or overt threats it could currently be "very difficult to prosecute".

Mr Matheson said: "A perpetrator may have subjected their partner to years of abuse but may only have been convicted of a single instance of assault or threatening and abusive behaviour."

He stressed the new law would not inadvertently criminalise "ordinary arguments and friction that may occur in many relationships".

Ministers are also "considering very carefully" how the proposals could be changed to reflect the impact of such abuse on children who are "in effect secondary victims of partner abuse".

Mr Matheson said: "It's not only physical violence but also psychological abuse - exerting total control over your partner's every movement and action, forcing your partner to live in constant fear is criminal and unacceptable in our society."

In a Scottish government consultation, more than 90% of people said they did not believe the current laws provided police, prosecutors and courts with sufficient powers to bring perpetrators of abuse to justice.

Tory MSP Douglas Ross said domestic abuse was a "monstrous and multi-faceted crime", adding that "destructive effects can continue to reverberate long after the abuse has come to an end".

But he raised concerns that a senior figure in the Crown Office had told MSPs it was better for domestic abuse to be an aggravating factor in cases than for a separate offence of domestic abuse to be created.

"We have to ensure we get this right. It is an important piece of legislation that people will be looking at for many years to come," the Conservative said.

Labour's Claire Baker said: "We are in principle very supportive of introducing the new offence and of the intention to include those who commit psychological abuse and engage in coercive and controlling behaviour.

"While the majority of cases are a male perpetrator and a female victim, the law will provide protection for all adults in intimate relationships."

She urged the Scottish government to "learn any lessons" from England and Wales, where similar legislation has already been introduced.

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