How Do Authorities Deal With Emotional Abuse?

Emotional Abuse Under The 2018 Domestic Abuse Act- Part 2

Police Scotland defines domestic abuse as “Any form of physical, verbal, sexual, psychological or financial abuse which might amount to criminal conduct and which takes place within the context of a relationship. The relationship will be between partners (married, cohabiting, civil partnership or otherwise) or ex-partners. The abuse can be committed in the home or elsewhere including online”.

This definition sounds good and inclusive, but emotional abuse is subtle. You might not recognize it at first. You might not have the courage to come through with a complaint, fearing repercussions, and diminish the abuse on the grounds that it is “only” emotional abuse. The problem of this law is that securing evidence of emotional abuse might prove difficult, perhaps even more than in other abuse cases.

What is the actual training police and judges have to go through? Are they emotionally trained to respond to this? Does it help victims? I investigated into the laws, and how emotional abuse is tackled by the Scottish authorities.

Reporting Emotional Abuse

The Scottish government has provided £825,000 to Police Scotland, and 14,000 police officers are receiving training, according to Sky News. I made a FOI (Freedom Of Information) request to the Scottish government about domestic violence in Scotland between years 2013 and 2018 (minor and major offences), including court cases. The government specified that some incidents weren´t recorded in 2014-2015 due to an old system, but then the Police received a new iVPD (interim Vulnerable Persons Database) system to the 14 Police Divisions in Scotland, since April 1st, 2014.

It should be noted that there is no specification on the record about what kind of abuse it is. Annual Scottish domestic abuse statistics are available online on the government website. In 2018, the 26-30 years old age group had the highest incident rate for both victims (272 incidents recorded per 10,000 population), incidents were more common at weekends and 88% of them happened at home. The authorities seem to be informed, but again it is not stated how many incidents are emotional abuse. The only graph available

online that has this information is in a Crime and Justice survey, and we can see psychological abuse happens more frequently, with 14%:

I tried to find other information on the efficiency of the Act through digital archives, open government data and journal articles. All of them explained the different types of abuse and were informative about how and where to get help. This wasn´t enough to find information on the concrete measures of training, so I submitted a FOI to the Scottish government, Police Scotland, and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS), to see if there where changes in the statistics between 2017 to 2019.

“There is no mandatory recording process in relation to arrests as all perpetrators are arrested when they commit offences and some may be subject of a report to the Procurator Fiscal without ever having been arrested”, specified Police Scotland. The number of reports increased since the 2018 Act, and Police Scotland pointed out that there could be mistakes, since some “officers or members of police staff record a child as a victim of domestic abuse”.

Training the Police in emotional abuse

When I inquired about the Scottish Police’s new training, Police Scotland were allusive and just said it was efficient. No public information can be found on it, not even in their Joint Protocol with the COFPS. As for the Scottish government, they took longer to reply and gave me little information, but enough to obey to the FOI law. The Scottish government said that developed a “self-completion e-learning package on the new legislation which has been made available to all 22,000 staff”.

It seems that both authorities want to prove that they are taking actions on this new act, but the public doesn´t know where this money goes. Police Scotland gave “extra training” to officers, according to the BBC, but nowhere is it specified what measures exactly. On the government´s domestic abuse page, there is a section that explains that victims can contact the police if they have the courage.

The government gives a list of support organisations, according to your sex and for every domestic abuse scenario and allows the victims to check their abuser’s record if they complete the disclosure scheme, according to the Victims´ Code for Scotland. The website specifies that, after reporting abuse, the police will help in:

  • putting you in touch with a specially trained domestic abuse officer and with support agencies,
  • helping you feel safe – by taking you to a safe place like a refuge, or taking steps to make your own home secure,
  • getting you medical treatment if you are injured.

Police will then:

  • interview you – you can ask for a female or male officer,
  • detain your partner/ex-partner and taking them to a police station for an interview if a crime is established,
  • advise you what happens next – and what is happening with your partner/ex- partner,
  • with your permission, refer you to local advocacy groups and support services like Victim Support Scotland, Scottish Women´s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland for practical and emotional support.

If there is enough evidence, the Police will arrest the abuser. The issue is that the law is recent, so the training will be new, and we cannot be sure that the police is respecting the guidelines above. It should be taken into account that some officers can often be abusers themselves.

How can you prove emotional abuse?

But how can you prove emotional abuse? The Scottish government page says that if you´re required to give evidence at court, you can give evidence via live TV and a supporter can stay with you while you give evidence, but that can be dangerous. If a case goes to court, which it rarely does, there is no guarantee your abuser will suffer consequences or that evidence will be provided.

The government page also informs what to do when you decide to break up with abusive partner: make a safety plan (giving support organisations), decide where you´ll stay (with friends or family, in a refuge or in temporary accommodation provided by the council; have money available and government can help with money; and legal protection). As a victim or witness, you have the right to ask for information about certain aspects of a case.

To fill a statement, (written account of what happened, can be used as evidence, and can be filled when you report a crime or later) it has to be taken by an officer (choice of female or male officer) in your home, a police station, a hospital if injured, or in the street if that´s where it happened.

The police will ask for descriptions and sometimes evidence from where the crime happened (fingerprints/photos), according to the severity of the crime. The problem is: how to judge the severity?

There doesn´t seem to be a crime severity degree chart they follow. Police Scotland´s website explains how to report abuse and what the Police will do. The police also don´t seem to specify when the abuse is emotional. Every time domestic abuse is mentioned by the police, they ensure that they will provide a “professional, sensitive and consistent approach to victims of domestic abuse”.

On this page, you can also find the Joint protocol between Police Scotland and the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service, which is detailing the steps an officer should follow. In section 7 of the protocol (where “emotional abuse” is only mentioned twice), when a crime has been committed, it is stated that “consideration will be given to the arrest and interview of suspects in order to secure further evidence”. The abuser will likely not admit, and if released, will probably be dangerous to the victim.

Alleged training

As for training, it is set for “prosecutors, police officers and other relevant employees of COPFS and Police Scotland”, but there is nothing about it concretely, which is strange. According to a BBC article, over 400 crimes have been recorded by Police Scotland during the first three months after the new law, but it doesn´t specify if it is emotional. 190 cases have been reported to the Crown Office, with 13 convictions.

18,500 officers and police staff have received “online training on domestic abuse and the new offence, and 7,500 have received enhanced training in person”. The Guardian, in a 2017 article, stated that this police training would include a “reasonable person test”; for example: “would a reasonable person consider that limiting a woman’s access to her bank account or prescribing her meal times amounted to controlling behaviour?”. All of this is theoretical, and extremely subjective.

Hopefully, all the money can´t be spent only on tests like that. Marsha Scott, chief executive of Scottish Women´s Aid declared: “Women have been telling us for years that it is emotional abuse that is most harmful”, and Michael Matheson added: “Attitudes towards domestic abuse are changing”. This shows the importance to have a budget for this act, but where does all the money go?

Since the law passed, there has been nothing public about convicted offenders for emotional abuse, so is it efficient? Another 2018 Guardian article states that Michael Matheson announced £165,000 of dedicated training funding for Scottish Women’s Aid.

“Coercive and controlling behaviours are a significant factor in most, if not all cases, of domestic abuse”, declared assistant chief constable Gillian MacDonald. Training is recognized as necessary, and will supposedly ensure the police to “have a fuller understanding of the dynamics of power and control in abusive relationships and they have the necessary skills to identify, evidence and take action against the people responsible for abusive behaviours – the perpetrators themselves”.

It is an ambitious claim for a training program, and the ways to achieve it are not known. Victims may feel pressurized because of emotional bonds to abuser, and fear of recrimination, so training is necessary.

Enforcing the Law

The first person to be convicted under the Domestic Abuse Act is William James Murdoch, in May 2019, according to the BBC. He committed several offences, including abusive phone calls to his ex-wife; he plead guilty, was sentenced and got a two-year non- harassment order. Anne Marie Hicks, the national procurator fiscal for domestic abuse, said it is “a highly significant step forward in tackling domestic abuse (…) The Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service take a rigorous approach to crimes of domestic abuse”.

In a 2020 monthly Performance Report, Scotland Police revealed that between April and December 2019, 1,313 crimes were recorded under the legislation, so the Act seems effective. Nonetheless, according to a 2018 Telegraph article, domestic abuse victims are increasingly turning to the civil courts for protection because “the police are failing to enforce the law of coercive control (…) A number of police forces have said that they will prioritize hate crimes, implying that other categories of crime will not receive the same level of resource”.

Coercive control is viewed as normative for women in society, so it can be hard to identify, both for the women and the police (Burman, Brooks-hay; 2018), so “justice” will probably only be served by a minority. It is vital that the Police recognizes what a pattern of repetitive coercive control looks like.

Police Scotland needs to think about long lasting damaging effects of abuse, and in this case, emotional abuse, and find form of support for victims. It is nearly impossible to prove emotional abuse, and there is also fact that a lot of times victims are not aware of abuse or are too scared to admit it. Abuse often happens privately, which makes it harder to prove.

As for the COFPS, who define themselves as “Responsible for the prosecution of crime and the investigation of sudden or suspicious deaths and complaints against the police”, they also state that tackling domestic abuse is a priority. They work closely with criminal justice partners and stakeholders to “reassure victims that it is safe to come forward and that their cases will be dealt with professionally”, and some areas have specialist domestic abuse courts.

The COFPS Joint Protocol of May 2019 (5th edition) between them and Police Scotland (“In partnership challenging domestic abuse”) can be found on their website, so anyone can read it. The main points of it can be summarized, but it should be read extensively by everyone.

Firstly, it should be noted that they employ the term “victim”, which might diminish the people that suffer from abuse. Some prefer the term “survivor”, Women’s Aid Scotland explained. The protocol recognizes that “victims may lose their autonomy and become isolated, controlled or manipulated and will often live in fear”, which can have a devasting effect on the victim´s life and might make them feel demoralized, depressed, and more.

The Protocol assures that all victims will be treated fairly, ethically and respectfully. The protocol aspires to be inclusive and are aware that people often think of domestic abuse as a gender-based violence. The new definition acknowledges and includes abuse of “male victims by female perpetrators and includes abuse of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people within relationships”.

This shows the authorities desire to be more progressive. When investigating reports, officers need to be “aware that diversity of culture, insecure immigration status, religion, ethnicity, language barriers, age, sexual orientation, gender, transgender identity or disability”.

When there is abuse, Police Scotland will assess each report received and “Where the abuse is ongoing and where there is an imminent risk or threat of harm the police will respond immediately. Where a report is received, which is not ongoing (…) then an appropriate response will be determined considering a number of factors, including the wishes of the person making the report.”

Their priority is the well-being of the victims and their families. After this first step, the police will investigate and might arrest the abuser, if there is a reasonable cause.

Afterwards, “suitably trained domestic abuse officers” will inform victims of their rights and support. There also is a section concerning children if children are involved. For the rest of the investigation, officers need to be careful before releasing the suspect of the risks concerning the victim and need to take assessment of the full situation.

They will inform the victim if there is a release and will carefully explain the conditions of release. The protocol acknowledges that often, victims will want to retrieve their statements because they are scared of repercussions, but the statement must stay.

Sometimes, counter allegations will be made, so officers need to be careful examining the situation.

With sufficient evidence, the suspect will either be released or taken to court. Court must consider Non Harassing Order (NHO) when the person is “convicted of an offence under section (1)(1) of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 (‘the 2018 Act;), or is convicted of an offence aggravated as described in S(1)(1)(a) of the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016”, to protect the victim and any children involved.

If a child is a witness to the abuse, the Procurator Fiscal must consider the views and interests of the child, and abilities to provide evidence. Still, it will probably still be a cause of distress to a child.

Support is offered by the VIA (Victim Information and Advice) service of COPFS to victims and vulnerable witnesses by : “providing information about the criminal justice system, keeping them up-to-date on key developments in the case that affects them, helping them get in touch with organisations that can offer practical and emotional support (…) and liaising with specialist services working with the victim”.

The protocol overall seems inclusive and caring to the victims and their witnesses needs. However, under the “training” section, the only thing that is written is: “A program of ongoing training and development will support the principles and standards set out in this protocol including training for prosecutors, police officers and other relevant employees of COPFS and Police Scotland”. This is very vague and no further information is provided.

The lack of training

To try to find information on what constitutes the training, I asked the COFPS what their measures were and another few questions, under the FOI Act. I emailed them on May 18th, 2020, and they responded on 11 June 2020. Considering this was during the Covid- 19 pandemic, and that FOI responses could take up to at least two months, their response was fast.

Apparently, they don´t record types of abuse separately in their database, which doesn´t allow them to see how serious the problem of emotional abuse is.

Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 S1 Abuse of Partner/ExTotal 
Charges reported to COPFS 2019-201,065 
Gender of Accused  
Female423.9%
Male1,02396.1%
Gender of Victim  
Female1,02496.2%
Male413.8%
Charges prosecuted916 
Charges convicted257 
Charges convicted with Disposal of:  
Imprisonment51 
Community Payback Order131 

(Table 3. Number of cases who went to court, charges prosecuted and imprisonment in Scotland, in 2018. Source : FOI request, COFPS.)

I requested the number of perpetrators who have been the subject of a report to the Procurator Fiscal without ever having been arrested, but they said they have no information about that and: “do not have a separate statistical database and hold only operational data needed for business purposes”.

I also asked if there have there been complaints against the police in emotional abuse cases but the COFPS didn´t answer, on the grounds that “the costs of locating, retrieving and providing the information requested would exceed the upper cost limit of £600”. It is possible that maybe they don´t want to make this information available and want to discourage research, so this would be something to investigate.

My final question was about training, since Police Scotland and the Scottish government didn´t want to elaborate on what their training constitutes of. The COFPS replied

“information on training of police officers or employees of Police Scotland is not held by COPFS”. So, who holds it? No authority seems to hold it.

“COPFS provide specialist training on domestic abuse to all relevant staff members, including prosecutors, case preparers and staff providing our Victim Information and Advice (VIA) service. This includes bespoke training on the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018”, they declared. All authorities prided themselves on their training, without explaining its contents and being very vague.

Finally, I got an answer. COFPS admitted, on paper: “There is no training protocol, but the training reflects the policy and guidance contained within the Domestic Abuse Joint Protocol, referred to above. With inputs from other organisations, including Police

Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid and SafeLives, COPFS domestic abuse training provides information on the nature and dynamics of domestic abuse, the impact on victims and children, risk and safety considerations and support for victims, COPFS prosecution policy and guidance and relevant legislation”.

There is no training. It is alarming for victims and raises the question of where did all the money invested in training go? COFPS added that the Police respect training guidance from the Joint Protocol, but in the protocol in the training section, it only says that Police and COFPS members go through training, without anything specified. How is it possible to even admit this?

The authorities seem to have good intentions, but in practice, there is an alarming lack of training, not for lack of funds. This should be a wake-up call to the authorities, so that the money can be used to help victims and create a safer space.

Emotional abuse is not a minor accident that should be dismissed. Emotional abuse is real, and the authorities should accept that.

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