Prison sentences for perpetrators of ‘coercive control’ based domestic abuse need to be DOUBLED from five to ten years, in line with other serious crimes.
That’s the view of one leading Liverpool Hope University academic and domestic abuse expert, who says current legislation simply doesn’t go far enough in reflecting the ‘horrific’ experiences of victims.
The call comes after the high-profile sentencing this week of Jonathan Wignall the ex-husband of ITV Wales presenter Ruth Dodsworth.
A court heard how controlling and possessive Wignall, 54, subjected his former partner to a nine-year campaign of harassment and stalking, which included physical assaults as well as opening her mail, fitting a tracker to her car and even standing outside the door when she visited the bathroom.
He was sentenced at Cardiff Crown Court to three years in custody - and will serve half before being released on licence.
And Dr Emma Katz, Senior Lecturer in Childhood and Youth at Hope, says the case illustrates why sentencing guidelines need reassessing.
She explains: “This case highlights that sentencing for coercive control crimes are simply not good enough, at all, and current legislation needs to change.
“The consequences of coercive control are truly nightmarish for victims. It’s an attack on your liberty, your autonomy, your ability to make decisions.
“Perpetrators often attempt to gain compliance through a system of ‘reward and punishment’, keeping victims trapped in a cycle of abuse.
“And very often children and young people often become victims of this abuse, too.
“What’s concerning is that sentences for coercive control crimes are often very low, with perpetrators handed a few months or a year or two on the back of some horrific histories where they have psychologically tortured their victims for 15 years or more.
“The maximum you can get for coercive control is five years in prison - but many perpetrators don’t get that maximum, they get a couple of years at most.
“And it’s my view that the maximum sentences for coercive control should be changed from five to ten years, at least, in line with serious crimes such as making threats to kill and cruelty to children.”
It is a criminal offence in England and Wales for someone to subject another to coercive control - a law that came into force in 2015 and which recognises victims who experience a pattern of repeated control and domination from a perpetrator.
The abuse might be physical - but it could equally involve the calling of horrible names, attacking someone’s self-esteem, controlling their access to money or isolating them from family and friends.
Changes to the Domestic Abuse Bill that is due to come into force this year mean that children who are exposed to a perpetrators’ domestic abuse will now be treated as ‘victims’ under law for the first time.
But Dr Katz, whose research into the experiences of children caught in the crosshairs of coercive control was published in the journal Child Abuse Review last year, says those changes are still papering over the cracks.
She adds: “England should look north of the border to Scotland to see a solution to the problem of lenient sentences of perpetrators of coercive control.
“A new domestic abuse bill was passed in Scotland in 2018 which made coercive control a key issue, and which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years.
“If the Government wants to send a serious message that domestic abuse is not acceptable in our society and will not be tolerated, tougher sentencing like this is an important part of the way forward.
“The way that Scotland has really prioritised the tackling of domestic abuse shows that it is streets ahead in the fight against this crime. Its approach to domestic abuse has been described as the ‘Gold Standard’ which should be emulated around the world.”
Dr Katz, author of upcoming book ‘Coercive Control in Children’s and Mothers’ Lives’, has previously outlined some of the ‘red flag’ warning signs when it comes to the escalation of coercive control scenarios.
She argued: “In the UK we need a much better awareness of what coercive control really is.
“And it’s easy for coercive control to escalate without the victim even realising what’s happening.
“When we’re talking about an adult perpetrator and an adult victim, the relationship might begin really quickly. The perpetrator seems to idolise you. ‘You’re the one, I’m so excited I found you’.
“Things move along really quickly because they’re keen to get you committed to the relationship, fast.
“Importantly, the victim might not see this behaviour as a red flag. They might interpret it as, ‘He or she cares about me so much. It’s romantic’.
“But then the perpetrator might start sending too many texts in a day, getting annoyed if you don’t reply or pick up the phone.
“They might suggest a joint bank account, making it harder for you to break away financially.
“They might also want to know precisely what you’ve spent your money on, demanding to see receipts.
"It ramps up and up. Until you’re left with virtually no freedom or autonomy at all.
“And situations can quickly evolve into a nightmare.”