When it becomes law there will be, for the first time, a statutory definition of domestic abuse. This will include economic abuse, alongside physical and emotional abuse. The fact that economic abuse is formally to be recognised as a distinct form of abuse cannot be underestimated. It will catch many perpetrators in a way that may not have done previously.
Economic abuse is, effectively, behaviour that interferes with someone’s ability to access money, transportation and utilities, often making the victim completely economically dependent on their abuser. For example, the abuser may retain sole control of all family income; taking and controlling the victim’s pay; and spending and preventing the victim accessing welfare benefits, mobile phones and food.
Though the inclusion of economic abuse was via a relatively late amendment to the bill, it’s reassuring that government has recognised that the economic abuse elements of coercive control can continue for decades.
Adding economic abuse as a specific type of domestic abuse is timely, given revelations that it has increased during the covid-19 pandemic. According to a report from the Co-operative Bank and Refuge, 8.7m people are suffering economic abuse in a current or previous relationship.
Economic abuse is typically more insidious – in part because it is relatively invisible. The impact is psychological not physical, the harm caused is not always readily apparent or identifiable.
Family lawyers need to be attuned to the realities of economic abuse, able to spot the warning signs when engaging with clients. In cases where it is suspected the client is being, or has been subject to economic abuse it is important that practitioners adjust their approach to the case and consider the options available to secure immediate protective measures.
Though the bill is not yet law, protection is already available to the victims, such as:
- Occupation orders under sections 33-40 of the Family Law Act 1996, which can be secured to remove the perpetrator from the family home. When making such an order, the court can require the perpetrator to continue paying the rent or mortgage, and so on pending further financial applications.
- Non-molestation orders may be appropriate where it is feared the perpetrator may continuing abusing the victim in some way, for example, via digital means.
- Consider protecting the victim’s property/occupation rights by way of notice or restriction at HM Land Registry.
- Where the matrimonial home and other assets are in the partner’s sole name, it may be appropriate to secure a freezing order preventing them from attempting to transfer such assets beyond reach.
- An application under section 37 Matrimonial Causes Act for an order setting aside a transaction entered into by the partner for the purposes of preventing or reducing financial relief to the victim. Similar provisions for civil partnerships are available under the Civil Partnership Act 2004.
It is important for practitioners to understand that the controlling nature of economic abuse and the victim’s likely utter dependence on the perpetrator, typical of economic abuse, may mean the client is hesitant to recognised and acknowledge the realities of their situation.
Explaining that economic abuse is taken seriously by the courts and will shortly be a criminal offence should go some way to reassure victims that it’s safe to explain what they are being subjected to. Only then can family lawyers provide a fully effective service that protects their interests.
Economic abuse was recently covered in great detail in our virtual event, LAW2021 Online: Family Law. The recording of the event is still available for you to to use for your continuing competency and to gain 6 hours of CPD from. Click here to take a look.