Ireland expands legal definition of domestic violence to include emotional, psychological abuse

Ireland has expanded the legal definition of domestic abuse to include “coercive control,” which includes emotional and psychological abuse.

The Domestic Violence Act 2018 went into effect on Tuesday with the new year and brought forth new protections for victims under both civil and criminal law.

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The act defines “coercive control” as a type of manipulation in intimidating relationships that strips away a person’s feeling of self-worth and agency.

“This is psychological abuse in an intimate relationship that causes fear of violence, or serious alarm or distress that has a substantial adverse impact on a person’s day-to-day activities,” the Minister for Justice and Equality Charlie Flanagan’s office said in a statement.

Flanagan said that domestic violence has long been seen as only physical abuse.

“The new offence of coercive control recognises that the effect of non-violent control in an intimate relationship can be as harmful to victims as physical abuse because it is an abuse of the unique trust associated with an intimate relationship,” Flanagan said in a statement.

The intimate relationship between the victim and the perpetrator, under the new law, must be considered an aggravating factor during any sentencing phase.

“This new provision sends a message that society will no longer tolerate the appalling breach of trust committed by one partner against the other in an intimate context,” Flanagan said.

Reported cases of emotional abuse far outnumbered disclosures of physical abuse in 2017, according to data collected by Ireland’s national domestic violence support organization Women’s Aid.

There were 10,281 disclosures of emotional abuse to the organization’s direct services in 2017, compared to the 3,502 reports of physical abuse, 607 reports of sexual abuse and 1,443 disclosures of financial abuse. 

The law also includes several other improvements to the handling of domestic abuse cases, including making protection orders available to victims in intimate relationships with their abusers but not living together.

Margaret Martin, the director of Women’s Aid, celebrated the addition to the law.

“This change will make a significant difference to the safety of younger women,” Martin said in a statement. “We also welcome the move to prevent abusers to communicate electronically with their victims, a step in the right direction to address the digital abuse and online harassment of women by partners and exes.”

Women’s Aid, however, urged law enforcement to quickly apply the new laws in the new year.

“It must be positive, it must be practical and it must make them and their children safer from abuse,” Martin said. “What is promised on paper must be fully resourced to be effective in protecting those affected by domestic violence. We are concerned that an already over-stretched system will see an increase in demand when the new provisions commence.”