Domestic Abuse bill could help non-resident parents experiencing ‘coercive control’

Families Need Fathers Scotland has submitted its observations  to the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee consultation on the Scottish Government’s draft Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill which aims to introduce a new domestic abuse criminal offence of ‘coercive control’.

From the perspective of the individuals who ask for our help FNF Scotland gives a qualified welcome to the Bill’s proposal to create “a new offence of abusive behaviour towards a person’s partner or ex-partner covering both physical violence and non-physical abuse.”

We have drawn the Justice Committee’s attention to examples of coercive control exerted over a non-resident parent by the parent with most care. These range from the constructed ambush at handover to the persistent and pervasive controlling of the life of the non-resident parent.  We have listed the following examples from within cases raised with us:

  • Refusing to communicate at all
  • Refusing to communicate unless through (an expensive) solicitor
  • Delaying decisions on arrangements such as holiday dates until the last minute
  • Changing contact arrangements at the last minute without reason or explanation
  • Constantly being late for agreed or court ordered contact
  • Taking children away from school on holiday without notice or agreement
  • Refusing to engage with the non-resident parent on key decisions such as school placements
  • Instructing health providers not to engage with the non-resident parent
  • Demanding “cash for contact”
  • Demanding to know every detail of what the child does when with the non-resident parent in way they would refuse to reciprocate
  • Hiding a tracking or listening device in the clothes or toys of a child when the child is having contact with the other parent
  • Criticising the other parent’s parenting skills
  • Criticising and undermining the other parent in front of their children
  • Criticising the other parent’s choices of clothes or food while the child is with them
  • Demanding the right to withhold contact from a new partner
  • Making unfounded allegations about a range of matters both trivial and potentially criminal to friends, neighbours, family members directly and on social media aimed at isolating and undermining the character of the non-resident parent
  • Making unfounded allegations about a range of matters both trivial and potentially criminal to professionals putting the non-resident parent in the position that he is under constant pressure to prove his worth as a parent.

We reluctantly accept that there is at present a role for the criminal law to help tackle the kind of abusive conduct of ex-partners as outlined above.  In these circumstances we urge that there should be flexibility of sentencing options available to the sheriff or judge to include community disposals as alternatives to imprisonment and/or fines. The aim of sentencing should reflect the seriousness with which the court sees the offence but without inflicting further damage on the victim. We already hear from sheriffs in contempt cases that they don’t want the parent offended against to get the blame in the eyes of the children for “sending the other parent to gaol.”

FNF Scotland National Manager, Ian Maxwell, says: “At present non-resident parents experiencing coercive control feel unprotected by the law. If they report it to police they are told ‘There’s nothing we can do. It’s a civil matter’. Or if there is a court order in place the only option is the slow, unpredictable and expensive route of raising a contempt of court action.

Our preference is for a broader overhaul of family law in Scotland that will give equality of recognition in public policy to the role both parents can play in the lives of their children. Scotland needs to move on from the prevailing acceptance of the adversarial approach in which parents ‘win time’ with their children from each other.

Until then, however, we believe the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill may be of use to a substantial number of the parents who ask for our help.

For the sake of clarity, we are focussing on the issues that affect non-resident parents because that is where we have first-hand knowledge and insight. That should not be taken as indifference to others whose experience of coercive control is covered by the Bill.”

As the Bill proceeds through Parliament we will report on progress.