"A momentous day": Domestic Abuse Bill passed in Holyrood

The new legislation will expand the legal definition of domestic abuse to include psychological abuse

THE DOMESTIC ABUSE (SCOTLAND) BILL, a “ground-breaking” piece of legislation which expands the legal definition of domestic abuse to include controlling, coercive and manipulative behaviour, was passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament on the evening of 1 February.

Watching from the parliament’s public gallery, domestic abuse activists who had long campaigned for such a bill were honoured with standing ovations by MSPs, following a series of impassioned speeches that, following the successful passage of several detail-oriented amendments, reflected a rare cross-party consensus across the chamber.

Under the new legislation, it will now be possible to treat both physical and psychological abuse as a single offence, allowing courts to consider cases in a more comprehensive manner and prosecute abusers in a way not previously possible.

In his opening statements, Justice Secretary Michael Matheson said: “I am not under any illusion that creating a new offence of domestic abuse will, on its own, end domestic abuse. Changes to the mindset of the men who perpetrate domestic abuse will take a generation or more. Only once it can be said that women are treated equally in our society can we be confident that we are on our way to eradicating domestic abuse.

“The #MeToo movement, which emerged during the scrutiny of the bill, is an example of what we all hope are seismic shifts in society’s views on how women are treated.” Justice Secretary Michael Matheson

“Nevertheless, it is heartening to see the pace of change. The #MeToo movement, which emerged during the scrutiny of the bill, is an example of what we all hope are seismic shifts in society’s views on how women are treated.

Matheson continued: “I am proud to have led the bill through Parliament. This is a momentous day, as our laws will be changed in a way that reflects the experience of domestic abuse that all too many women have suffered.”

Scottish Labour MSP Rhoda Grant, who led Scottish Labour’s contributions to the debate, said in her speech: “People who are seeing the physical devastation of domestic abuse for the first time always ask, ‘Why on earth does the victim stay? Why did they not leave—and leave immediately? Why did they go back?’

“What the person does not see is the years of psychological abuse that the victim has faced before the physical abuse began. They do not see someone who is so undermined that they blame themselves. They do not see someone who has nowhere to run, because the abuser has alienated their friends and family.

“The bill tries to deal with such psychological manipulation, which is often the precursor to physical abuse and is just as devastating. The behaviour is often so subtle, initially, that the victim is unaware of what is happening to them, so it is for friends and family to spot it.”

“The bill tries to deal with such psychological manipulation, which is often the precursor to physical abuse and is just as devastating.” Labour MSP Rhoda Grant

Conservative MSP Liam Kerr added: “Domestic abuse is monstrous and can cause immense and enduring trauma and harm. It has been sobering to hear and read the testimony of victims and the organisations that support them. They have highlighted the fact that there is behaviour that cannot currently be prosecuted because it does not meet the threshold of criminal conduct. More must be done to support the victims.”

In his contribution, John Finnie recognised that there were concerns in some quarters about the technicalities of the bill, even among those who support its essential principle, but remained resolute in his support: “I understand that people have reservations about the bill. People have said that it is not easy to legislate in the field of human relationships. Things are difficult to prove.

“However, there is ample evidence from Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and in the excellent work that has been done on serial perpetrators and historic abuse that there can be such legislation if we have the will and the resources. After all that we have heard, we would be failing if we did not legislate.”

Speaking to CommonSpace, SNP MSP Christina McKelvie commented; “The passing of this Bill is an historic moment in the lifetime of the Scottish Parliament and one that I am incredibly proud to be associated alongside.

“The passing of this Bill is an historic moment in the lifetime of the Scottish Parliament.” SNP MSP Christina McKelvie

“Make no mistake about it, this is ground-breaking legislation that takes its lead from the incredibly brave and courageous survivors of domestic abuse.

“Expansive in its scope and wide in its remit, this Bill, for the first time taking account of psychological and emotional abuse, makes it abundantly clear even more than before – victims are never to blame for their abuse.

“I can’t pay a higher tribute to every single survivor who shared their experience. Through their bravery they have ensured that justice can be delivered for the survivors of domestic abuse.”

The passage of the bill has been broadly welcomed by women’s welfare organisations and Scottish feminist groups. Lydia House, Media and Events Officer for Zero Tolerance, a charity working to tackle the causes of men’s violence against women, told CommonSpace: “We are thrilled to see that the Domestic Abuse bill is going forward. Legislation alone will not end domestic abuse; for that we will need a wider focus on challenging the gender inequality which allows men’s violence against women to be tolerated.

READ MORE: Anni Donaldson: Understanding coercive control and domestic abuse

“However, it is only by addressing the whole spectrum of coercive control that change will happen and this bill represents a vital step forward in capturing the true nature of domestic abuse and representing women’s lived experiences with it.”

Speaking to CommonSpace, Jan Macleod, manager of the Women’s Support Project explained the necessity of the new legislation: “The Scottish Government has invested considerable resources to tackling domestic abuse and we have seen significant improvements in understanding and in service responses.  In 2016-2017 there were 58,810 incidents of domestic abuse recorded by the police in Scotland.  However only 47% of these incidents included the recording of at least one crime or offence. 

“The main reason for this is that a key component of domestic abuse is emotional and psychological abuse.  The abuser uses a range of tactics to isolate, undermine and control their victim and this is not always easily or effectively challenged by the current legislation, The Domestic Abuse Bill aims to tackle this situation, bringing in not just new offences to capture the psychological abuse, but also a new approach that does not always have to reply on victim evidence.”

Despite recognising the rationale behind the bill however, Macleod reserved some judgement until evidence can be seen of how it is applied: “We welcome the intention behind the Bill but it remains to be seen how effective it will be in practice. A key aspect of effective implementation will be training for criminal justice services, and we welcome the recent commitment on police training by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice.  It will be important that practitioners are made aware of the new legislation and that some further guidance is provided in terms of recognising ‘coercive control’, and how best to record controlling behaviour.

“We welcome the intention behind the Bill but it remains to be seen how effective it will be in practice.” Women’s Support Project manager Jan Macleod

Macleod continued: “There may be unintended consequences, for example that a person who has been a long term victim of domestic abuse is convicted of a domestic abuse offence under the new legislation.

“Recorded domestic abuse include some cases of ‘violent resistance’, i.e. cases in which a person who has been the victim of long term abuse is arrested for assaulting their partner on this occasion.  It may be that they acted in self-defence, whilst being assaulted, but it may also be that they were so in fear of their lives and so entrapped by the abuser that they felt help and escape was impossible and that the only escape for themselves, and possibly their children, was to kill the abusive partner. 

“We would be concerned if such cases were prosecuted as a domestic abuse offence but are hopeful that adequate training and monitoring of the new legislation will avoid unintended negative consequences.”

Picture courtesy of the Scottish Government

Look at how important CommonSpace has become, and how vital it is for the future #SupportAReporter