Daily Telegraph, 4 September 2016
It’s fictional, of course, but the trial of the year is about to begin. Millions of Radio 4 listeners will be glued to this week’s episodes of The Archers when Helen Titchener appears in court, charged with the attempted murder of her abusive husband, Rob. Helen’s liberty – and the future welfare of her two sons – depends on the verdict in the trial, which has created a lively national conversation about domestic abuse.
Back in April, fans of the series heard Rob taunt Helen as she tried to leave him. He was so confident he had destroyed every vestige of his wife’s independence and self-respect that he even put a knife in her hand, never believing she would use it. Helen’s barrister, Anna Tregorren, will argue that she stabbed Rob to defend herself and her young son, Henry, but the case hinges on the jury’s understanding of a specific and poorly-understood form of domestic abuse.
Coercive control became a criminal offence at the end of last year. Helen Titchener has shown the classic symptoms of a woman who’s been subjected to it, even while she’s been awaiting trial in a mother-and-baby unit. She has given every appearance of still being under her husband’s control, blaming herself for the breakdown of her marriage and displaying rock-bottom self-esteem. Listeners and members of The Archers cast have felt growing frustration as she refused to reveal the extent of what she suffered at Rob’s hands – including being raped – to her lawyer.
This is far from unusual in this form of abuse, which leaves few physical marks but has devastating effects on victims. It involves a sustained campaign to take away a woman’s autonomy, isolating her from friends and family; perpetrators control access to money, humiliate their victims with callous remarks, and may even go as far as putting tracking devices on mobile phones or cars. Sometimes, as in Helen’s case, it’s the prelude to actual violence, laying the ground so the victim is too cowed to seek help from outsiders.
The new law is based on a realisation that domestic abuse is usually a long series of incidents, not a single outburst of violence. It’s a belated recognition that police officers need to look at a pattern of behaviour if they’re going to identify and charge perpetrators.
Yet figures which have just been published suggest that real-life Helens are not getting the protection they need – or seeing their abusers taken to court. The law on coercive control was used only 62 times in the six months after it came into operation, with some police forces failing to charge a single individual with the offence.
Twenty-two forces in England and Wales responded to a Freedom of Information request from a law firm, and eight admitted that they had not brought a single prosecution. Nine, including Lincolnshire, Warwickshire and Wiltshire, had used the law twice or less. A spokeswoman for Northamptonshire police, which has not prosecuted anyone, said its officers had undergone ‘comprehensive training’ in coercive control but “it will obviously take time to see successful prosecutions move through the system.”
Experts in the field say that coercive control is one of the most common forms of abuse. “Sadly, Helen’s experiences mirror what so many abused women feel and experience every day”, says Sandra Horley, chief executive of charity Refuge. “She has been manipulated and controlled by a violent perpetrator”.
The widespread failure to use the new law is all the more disappointing because we are in the midst of an epidemic of domestic abuse, with the Office for National Statistics estimating that 1.4m women became victims in the year 2013-14. The police recorded almost 147,000 incidents in London alone last year, including 28 domestic murders.
In recent years, while Theresa May was Home Secretary, the police have been given significant new powers to deal with this shameful situation. In March 2014, domestic violence protection orders and notices were introduced, allowing senior police officers and magistrates to put in place measures (including evictions) to protect women in cases where there is insufficient evidence to bring charges. Home Office data suggests they are not being used anything like often enough, with only 71 being authorised in the whole of London in the final two months of 2014.
In May this year, when she was still at the Home Office, May lambasted the police for continuing to fail victims of domestic violence. She said some things had improved since she ordered a review in 2013 but victims of abuse ‘are still being let down and reports are not being taken seriously enough’.
Clearly she’s right. In fact, it seems as though the producers of a BBC radio soap – and the thousands of people who have raised more than £150,000 for the charity Refuge in response to The Archers storyline – have a more sophisticated grasp of domestic abuse than some police forces.
Joan Smith is Co-Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board