Just six people were convicted of controlling and coercive behaviour towards their partner in Cheshire last year.
The low numbers come despite hundreds of incidents being reported to police, with charities warning domestic abuse survivors face a lack of support and understanding from the criminal justice system.
In 2020, six people in the police force area pleaded or were found guilty of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship, according to figures from the Ministry of Justice.
Controlling behaviour is a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them, while coercive behaviour includes assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation.
It is a form of domestic abuse, and if someone continuously acts in this way towards a partner or family member, knowing that the behaviour is having a serious effect on the victim, then it is considered an offence.
Such behaviours might include isolating a person from their friends and family, monitoring them, telling them where they can go, who they can see, what to wear and when they can sleep, repeatedly putting them down, forcing the victim to take part in criminal activity, neglect or abuse of children, controlling finances, and making threats.
The specific offence of coercive control came into force on December 29, 2015.
However, while the most recent figures show reports to Cheshire Police rocketed from 255 in 2018/19 to 694 in 2019/20, convictions have remained low, with six in 2019, the same number as in 2020.
Of those convicted in Cheshire in 2020, all six of them were men.
Three of those convicted were jailed, with one receiving a sentence between two and three years, while one was given a suspended sentence.
Two others were awaiting sentence when the figures were compiled.
Across England and Wales, 24,856 incidents were reported to police in 2019/20, up from 17,616 in 2018/19.
Domestic abuse charities said the introduction of this offence was a big step forward in recognising abuse as more than punches, kicks and physical violence, but the criminal justice system needed to do more to support survivors.
Ruth Davison, Refuge CEO, said court delays due to Covid-19 were a huge barrier, potentially causing survivors of domestic abuse to lose faith in the system and even drop out of cases, but failures ran deeper than just issues seen in the last year.
She said: “Time and again Refuge hears of police failings in gathering evidence of coercive control and that the burden of responsibility of gathering this evidence often falls on the shoulders of survivors, which can later impact the strength of a case in court.
“Refuge also knows that criminal trials can often be overwhelming and traumatic for survivors, with magistrates showing a lack of understanding of the dynamics of abuse.
“What survivors of abuse now need, is for the police to thoroughly investigate cases of coercive control and for courts to better support survivors of this crime. We must see change. This change will need to start from a better understanding of what domestic abuse is, its forms and how it affects women and children.”
Across England and Wales, just 374 people were convicted of coercive control in 2020.
The number of convictions has been rising – up from 59 in 2016 the first year after the offence was introduced.
The number of people appearing in court charged with the offence also rose from 155 to 706 over the same period.
However, the figures remain much lower than the number of cases reported to the police.
Lucy Hadley, head of policy, campaigns and public affairs at Women’s Aid, said: “The criminal justice system is failing women who experience coercive control – with a lack of understanding about the nature of the crime, delays and backlogs, and poor support throughout the process as key reasons that cases do not proceed.
“It remains vital that all judges, prosecutors and police officers truly understand coercive control and are confident in investigating, evidencing and prosecuting this crime.
“The proportion of cases that are closed due to evidential difficulties are really concerning, and training is essential to ensure that the police and others are delivering the right response. Professionals need to understand that Coercive Control is often invisible and the need to evidence the controlling behaviour and the serious effects that it has on survivor’s is paramount to bringing perpetrators to justice.”
She said Women’s Aid works with the College of Policing and other organisations to deliver the Domestic Abuse Matters training programme for police forces – which has a specific focus on ensuring police officers’ understand coercive control and can respond effectively to survivors – with a need need to roll out this and similar training more widely.
Of those convicted nationally last year, 364 were men – including two aged between 15 and 17, while seven were aged between 18 and 20 – and seven were women.
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Of those convicted, 206 were sentenced to jail or a young offenders institute, while 68 received suspended sentences.
Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said it can only consider cases that have been referred to it following a police investigation. It has published guidance for prosecutors that includes a list of examples of what may constitute controlling or coercive behaviour.
A CPS spokesperson said: “We recognise the devastating impact that controlling and coercive behaviour can have on victims and will always prosecute cases when our legal test is met.
“Since it became an offence in 2015 the number of people we have prosecuted has gone up each year and so has the number who plead guilty or are found guilty after a trial.
“We encourage victims to report abusers to the police so action can be taken.”
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