08th Aug 2016

What Helen Archer could have done instead

In this blog Family Law in Partnership associate Helen Greenfield considers the new offence of coercive control in the context of the storyline of Helen Archer and Rob Titchener in The Archers.

It is definitely a sign of my age that I now listen to the Archers religiously every week. I remember hearing the familiar theme tune wafting upstairs once I’d been put to bed when I was younger and never thought I would turn into one of those people! But I have.

Whether I did or not however, I think I would have been hard pushed to avoid the recent storyline involving the difficulties between Helen Archer and her husband, Rob Titchener. The abuse of Helen by her husband Rob was difficult to listen to. The insidious and subtle nature of his emotional abuse was shocking and, over two and a half years, finally pushed Helen to stab him. We still don’t know how things will be resolved but was this the only way out for Helen?  Could she have made a better decision if she were able?

According to the editor of the Archers, it isn’t entirely coincidental that on 29 December 2015 section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 came into force. This created a new offence criminalising controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship, where the behaviour has a serious effect on the victim. This was with a view to closing a perceived gap in the law relating to patterns of controlling or coercive behaviour that can occur during a relationship where individual events would not be sufficient to constitute an offence. It recognises the harm and cumulative impact on the victim which can be caused by such behaviour and the fact that a repeated pattern of abuse can often be more harmful than a single incident of violence. A key part of the offence is therefore that the behaviour on the part of the perpetrator takes place repeatedly or continuously on an ongoing basis.

Under section 76, it is an offence for a person (“A”) when:

  1. A repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards another person (“B”) that is controlling or coercive; AND
  2. at the time of the behaviour, A and B are personally connected (This means either that A is in an intimate personal relationship with B or that A and B live together and are either members of the same family or have previously been in an intimate personal relationship together); AND
  3. the behaviour has a serious effect on B (This means that either that it causes B to fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against B, or it causes B serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on B’s usual day-to-day activities); AND
  4. A knows or ought to know that the behaviour will have a serious effect on B (This is an objective test).

There is a non-exhaustive list of possible coercive or controlling behaviour in the Statutory Guidance produced by the Home Office which includes:

  1. isolating a person from their friends and family
  2. depriving them of their basic needs
  3. monitoring their time
  4. monitoring a person via online communication tools or using spyware
  5. taking control over aspects of their everyday life, such as where they can go, who they can see, what to wear and when they can sleep
  6. depriving them of access to support services
  7. repeatedly putting them down
  8. enforcing rules and activity which humiliate, degrade or dehumanise the victim
  9. forcing the victim to take part in criminal activity
  10. financial abuse including control of finances
  11. threats to hurt or kill
  12. threats to a child
  13. threats to reveal or publish private information
  14. assault
  15. criminal damage
  16. rape
  17. preventing a person from having access to transport or from working

The maximum penalty on summary conviction of the offence is six months imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. On the commencement of section 154(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the maximum sentence on summary conviction will rise to 12 months. The maximum penalty on conviction on indictment is five years imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.

It would be very easy to read this from a comfortable office chair or seat on the Tube and think that, yes, Helen would have been far better getting herself a solicitor and sorting things out using this new legislation. But her inability to make such rational decisions is all part of the abuse and in any case, in reality, the Archers is a drama with a duty to entertain first. The fact that Helen assaulted Rob means that we’re now able to examine what the courts make of these domestic, behind-closed-doors matters, as a result of which two women a week are killed and thousands more continue to be affected.

Whether or not Helen’s actions can be justified, it must be right that these issues are being raised and talked about and that such behaviour can now be recognised as an offence.

This article first appeared in Solicitors Journal pm 05/07/16 and is reproduced by kind permission.

Helen Greenfield is an associate at Family Law in Partnership. She advises on all matters relating to family breakdown, divorce and cohabitation, focusing particularly on children issues, where appropriate. For more information on Helen and her family law practice, view her profile or contact Helen at T: 020 7420 5000 E:hg@flip.co.uk