Financial abuse: A crime too few recognise

tim williamson
By Tim Williamson

couple finances

CONTROLLING someone's money is recognised as a crime - but not by victims say Citizens Advice.

Everyone can tell they're a victim of crime if they're mugged for their wallet in the street. But according to Citizens Advice most people don't recognise that it's illegal for a partner or relative to take or control their money.

Money dealings even between friends and family can be a sensitive subject.

But forcing someone to take on debt or controlling their money is now as much an offence as common assault. The problem, according to the latest research by Citizens Advice, is that because people don't know they are being abused it's hard to offer them protection.

A new kind of crime

Worried about abuse at home?
  • Female victims should call the National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline on 0808 2000 247
  • Male victims should call the Men's Advice Line on 0808 801 0327
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender victims should call Broken Rainbow on 0300 999 5428

When Home Secretary Theresa May introduced a law to criminalise coercive and controlling behaviour in December 2014, it was designed to protect victims of psychological and emotional abuse.

The legislation was considered overdue.

The Government's consultation that summer showed 85% of the existing law didn't sufficiently protect victims and 55% felt a new definition of offence was needed.

Now the law has changed, just because an aggressor hasn't physically attacked someone doesn't mean they can't be punished by the courtroom. The maximum punishment is five years imprisonment or a fine.

Importantly the new legislation includes refusing someone's access to money or otherwise controlling their finances as an offence too.

However Citizens Advice has found a flaw with this well-meaning new law.

From research carried out for them by Com Res on over 2,000 people, they discovered that only 40% of adults in the UK are even aware that domestic abuse can extend to controlling and manipulating someone's financial affairs.

Just 39% were aware that making a partner account for their spending could constitute domestic abuse. And only 55% recognised that taking out a loan in some else's name was a form of abuse.

Yet financial abuse can cause just as much devastation and suffering as physical abuse.

Even just being in debt can cause mental health problems. So if someone is being bullied or worse into losing control of their money the effects can be even more dire.

A Citizens Advice report [pdf] revealed instances where people had access to their own bank account restricted or had money stolen from them. Some unfortunates were even left in massive debt when they were forced to take out loans to give money to their abuser.

Sometimes this financial abuse was accompanied by intimidation, physical violence and even repeated death threats. Yet even in these circumstances victims didn't necessarily recognise that their perpetrators were breaking the law.

Helping people to help themselves

As Citizens Advice acknowledges [pdf], it's hard for people to seek help even if they know they are being abused.

Not only are there emotional hurdles to overcome such as low self-esteem, self-blame and misplaced loyalty to an abusive partner, there are practical problems too.

Many people simply don't know where to go or what to do and some are frightened about asking for help.

The cost of legal action is also a massive concern to someone who's not in control of their finances.

In a recent survey of Citizens Advice advisers over 60% of respondents found legal aid restrictions had affected the help they could give to domestic abuse victims, and 35% had been greatly affected.

Yet even with all these obstacles to overcome it's still possible victims will seek aid. However that's simply never going to happen if they don't even realise they've been wronged.

Theresa May recognises the problem and says that getting people to be aware of the reality of domestic abuse and its different forms experienced by victims is "crucial".

However as she's keen to point out it's just as important that the police and courts recognise when this law has been broken and urges for guidelines to help bring perpetrators to justice.

Citizens Advice are currently developing guidelines to enable everyone from victims to professional helpers and authorities to recognise abuse in whatever form it takes. That way they will be in a better position to help provide people who suffer abuse with the care and support they need.

Seeking help

For those who think they may be in an abusive relationship Citizen Advice recommends calling an appropriate confidential helpline number.


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