The Sentencing Council has published new guidelines for Courts to use when sentencing defendants convicted of domestic abuse.

From 24 May 2018, the commission of domestic abuse offences could be met with harsher punishments as Courts are reminded of the seriousness of these crimes.

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There is no specific crime of domestic abuse. However, it can be a feature of many offences, such as assault, sexual offences or harassment. The Sentencing Council also plan to publish guidance for the relatively new related offence of controlling and coercive behaviour this summer.

While the domestic abuse guidelines, published on 22 February 2018, do not contain a specific range of sentences given the wide range of offences the guide applies to, it does aim to ensure the seriousness of offences committed in a domestic setting or relationship are properly taken into account.

Below is a list of the sentences available to Courts for offences often committed in a domestic setting. Defendants would be likely to receive sentences towards the top end of the range where there exists an element of domestic abuse:-

Common assault – a fine to up to 26 weeks’ custody

Actual Bodily Harm (ABH) – community order to a maximum of 5 years’ custody

Unlawful wounding (GBH s.20) – community order to a maximum of 5 years’ custody

Wounding with intent (GBH s.18) – 3 years’ custody to a maximum of life imprisonment

Sexual assault – community order to a maximum of 10 years’ custody

Harassment without violence – fine to a maximum of 6 months’ custody

Harassment (putting people in fear of violence) – fine to a maximum of 5 years’ custody

Factors that will lead to an increased sentence include but are not limited to circumstances where the defendant has taken steps to prevent the victim reporting an incident, or where the victim has had to take steps to exclude the defendant from the home. The guidelines also specify that where defendants have used contact arrangements with a child to carry out domestic abuse, this will also be treated as an aggravating factor.

Prior to the publication of the newest guidelines, the Courts were using guidance published in 2006, which failed to take into account more modern vehicles for the commission of domestic abuse, such as social media and online harassment.

The Sentencing Council stated: A great deal has changed since [the 2006 guidance] in terms of societal attitudes, expert thinking and terminology. ‘Domestic abuse’ is now the term used, rather than ‘domestic violence’, to reflect that offences can involve psychological, sexual, financial or emotional abuse as well as physical violence.

“The new guideline brings a distinct change in emphasis in relation to seriousness. The previous guideline stated that offences committed in a domestic context should be seen as no less serious than those in a non-domestic context, whereas the new guideline emphasises that the fact an offence took place in a domestic context makes it more serious. This is because domestic abuse is rarely a one-off incident, it is likely to become increasingly frequent and more serious the longer it continues, and may result in death. It can also lead to lasting trauma for victims and their children.”

The new guidance comes in the wake of the recently introduced offence of controlling and coercive behaviour and an emphasis placed on the different forms domestic abuse can take by organisations such as the Crown Prosecution Service and the Sentencing Council.

Controlling behaviour is defined by the Sentencing Council as a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capability for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and/or regulating their everyday behaviour.

Coercive behaviour is defined as an act or pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation (whether public or private) and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten the victim. Abuse may take place through person to person contact, or through other methods, including telephone calls, text, email social networking sites or the use of GPS tracking devices.

Recent case law – controlling and coercive behaviour – (R v Conlon)

In this case, which was heard by the Court of Appeal on 21 November 2017, the defendant was charged with controlling and coercive behaviour after committing offences against his ex-partner over a 14-month period. Conlon previously pleaded guilty on the first day of trial, having denied the offence until that point. He also pleaded guilty to ABH and perverting the course of justice by writing letters to the female complainant persuading her not to attend Court.

Conlon’s lawyers appealed his four year sentence for the offence of controlling and coercive behaviour. They stated that, given the maximum sentence for this offence is one of five years, the four year sentence was manifestly excessive and should be lowered. However, the Court of Appeal stated that Conlon’s offences, which includes several instances of him repeatedly punching and kicking his ex-partner, were of the more serious which come before the Courts. They therefore dismissed his appeal.

The new sentencing guidelines will apply to any defendant sentenced after 24 May 2018, regardless of whether the offence was committed before this date.

If you would like to discuss the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour, or have a query in relation to domestic abuse charges, please contact a member of our criminal law team.