What does domestic abuse look like?

And what can the courts do when they recognise it?

An important ruling on domestic abuse will be delivered by the Court of Appeal in a few weeks’ time. It will provide much-needed guidance for family judges in England and Wales who have to deal, in an estimated 22,000 cases a year, with issues such as partner rape and coercive control. When the last such guideline judgment was issued more than 20 years ago, it referred to domestic violence — a phrase that wrongly suggests all abuse must be physical in nature.

The ruling* will complete a hearing this week in which Sir Andrew McFarlane (the senior family judge) sat with Lady Justice King (a former family judge who supervises judicial training) and Lord Justice Holroyde (chosen for his expertise in criminal law). They heard four appeals on Tuesday and Wednesday. To help them derive broader principles from whatever they conclude in these individual cases, the judges spent yesterday afternoon considering submissions on behalf of social workers and support groups who work across the field of domestic abuse.

What sort of behaviour are we talking about? For those of us fortunate to be part of a committed and loving structure of family relationships, it may be difficult to imagine — or even to believe — what abusers are capable of. That’s why a judgment delivered by Mr Justice Hayden last Friday received such praise at the hearing yesterday, not just from all counsel but also from the judges. The remainder of this piece will be devoted to that ruling — the first in which a family judge has analysed allegations of controlling and coercive behaviour in detail.

As is normal when judgments like this are published, the parties and their families must not be identified — although we are told enough about them to have a good idea of what the case involves. The case has been named F v M, with F being the father and M being the mother.

Hayden is the 16th judge to have dealt with this case in little more than three years. His judgment runs to 40 pages and deserves be read in full. But a warning: even for someone like Lucy Reed, a practising barrister, part-time judge and family law blogger, it was “pretty grim stuff”. I found it deeply distressing and will spare readers many of the details.

The case began in October 2017 when F, the father, applied for contact with his two children, now aged six and three. We can assume — although we are told told this specifically — that the children are being cared for by M, the mother.

As far as we know, the courts have not decided what contact, if any, F should have with his children. What we have instead is the product of a 10-day fact-finding hearing in the High Court last November. That provides the context for a ruling on contact.

F and M are now in their mid-twenties. F comes from “south-eastern Europe” and is a Muslim. He is a “tall, stocky man”. M was born to multi-cultural parents of Hindu background and grew up in London. Like her parents, she is very slightly built. A psychologist described her as “very non-assertive, under-confident and generally not very worldly”. In court, she had the benefit of an intermediary to give her moral support.

M met F at the university they both attended. He was in the UK on a student visa.

“Within a couple of weeks of meeting M,” said Hayden, “F began to discuss marriage.” He was 19 at the time. F then began to discourage M from seeing her friends. He would firmly but politely extricate her from their company:

Those friends warned M that they thought her new boyfriend was controlling her and that they were worried about her… Two weeks after they met M agreed to marry F. Inevitably perhaps, given her age and their hopes and aspirations for their daughter, this was a body blow to M’s parents.

M’s mother and father were sensitive, low-key and respectful. But they told their daughter that she was too young to marry. She should wait until she knew her partner better, they said.

“This lukewarm response was conveyed to F and it was met by what [M’s mother] identified as a “notable difference in her daughter’s behaviour”. M began to ignore her mother’s telephone calls, sometimes not responding for days. This was entirely out of character.

M’s parents wanted to see her; but F insisted on being there when she met her family. Each time she tried to speak, he would cut her off. M’s mother said she had the clear impression that F was trying to intimidate her and her husband with the aim of turning M against them.

It was shortly afterwards that M discovered she was pregnant. She was dazed and wanted time to think before she told anybody. But F insisted that M should telephone her parents immediately, the judge found. In his view, “F had begun to manipulate M but also to use her to threaten, intimidate and frighten both her parents”.

Later that month, M asked her parents to collect her from university. They took her home. F informed the police that she was being kept against her her will. Officers visited the family home to investigate whether M had been the victim of “honour-based violence”. She told the police she was perfectly safe.

F then bombarded M with messages and threatened to kill himself. “Under this remorseless pressure M took her phone, slipped out of the house and returned to university to re-join F.”

After that, M rarely communicated with her mother — who became frantic with worry. She gave up her place at the university. Her parents drove there to look for her and found her in the high street. “She looked frail, withdrawn and lost,” her mother said in a statement. She “looked like she had been living on the streets as she was disheveled, her clothes didn’t fit.” At first, she didn’t even recognise her parents. “She seemed puzzled and lost but slowly came to her senses and had a pure look of relief.” But she was reluctant to come home.

Some six months after learning that their daughter was pregnant, M’s parents discovered from Facebook that she had married F.

M’s father was plainly devastated, the judge said. “Missing his daughter’s wedding was acutely painful to him.” M’s parents believed F was trying to secure permanent leave to remain in the UK.

After that, F “went to great lengths to avoid his whereabouts being discovered”. That made it impossible for M to receive ante-natal care. Her baby was born in hospital but F would not allow M to remain at the hospital unless he stayed there too.

“F's behaviour was not only controlling both emotionally and psychologically there was also a financial dimension to it,” the judge said. Despite claiming to be wealthy, F took some £4,000 from savings that had been put aside for her by her parents.

Finally, some three years later, M “sent a desperate message to her parents asking for their help. By this time, she was pregnant again.”

They rushed over to collect her and her child. M’s mother “at first did not dare hope that this would be the end of the relationship but pretty quickly it emerged that M had finally resolved to put this marriage behind her”.

Shortly afterwards, M made a complaint of rape against F. “The police very quickly concluded that what they perceived as ambivalence about consent rendered the evidence insufficiently strong to prosecute,” Hayden noted.

Officers subsequently considered whether F could be charged with the crime of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship. Ultimately, there was no prosecution.

The judge made no comment on this decision. But he was in no doubt about the evidence, quoting at length from M’s statement to the police:

In this case I am required to make findings on the balance of probability. I have no difficulty in concluding that, between December 2013 and September 2017, M was subjected to a brutalising, dehumanising regime by F which subjugated her and was profoundly corrosive of her autonomy. Further, were I required to make such findings to the criminal standard of proof, I should have no difficulty.

A further twist

A month after M escaped, F met another woman through an internet dating site. She was in her mid-forties and devoted to the welfare of her two sons, aged nine and 11. F was in his mid-twenties but claimed to be 40. Their relationship progressed very quickly and within months they were discussing marriage and pregnancy.

The woman’s mother became very concerned. Comments she made in a statement to the court could have been inserted seamlessly into M’s mother’s statement, the judge noted:

They describe insidious, unsettling and controlling behaviour enacted in a virtually identical manner. Thus, two women who have never met, with entirely different experiences of life are describing how their daughters were coerced into a distorted relationship which gradually and relentlessly chipped away at their own sense of self and personal autonomy. It need hardly be said that these two accounts, strikingly similar as they are, each reinforce the other. It is also the case that when the two relationships are compared, it brings the force of the abuse, in each separate relationship, in to greater focus and serves better to illustrate its corrosive and debilitating impact.

Originally, the evidence from F’s second relationship was not considered admissible in his contact application. Last August, the Court of Appeal concluded that it should be admissible in the same way as “similar fact evidence” in criminal cases.

I won’t try to assess Hayden’s analysis of the law because we shall soon have more authoritative guidance from the Court of Appeal. But Hayden’s finding on the facts is unlikely to be overturned:

I consider F to be a profoundly dangerous young man, dangerous to women who he identifies as vulnerable and dangerous to children. The risks he presents to women are not only to their emotional and physical well-being but also, in the light of my findings, to their sexual safety. It is clear that he has the capacity to cause much harm and distress to those who cross him more generally, particularly those within the sphere of the women he controls. It has been a disturbing case to hear.

What next?

Where do we go from here? Are there likely to be further court proceedings?

Almost certainly. And that’s one of the reasons why it is so important that the judge’s order must be obeyed and nobody should try identify the individuals concerned. If M and her children are have any chance of recovering from all this, they need to do so out of the public eye.

As far as F is concerned, there are bound to be developments that we currently know nothing about. Justice must be allowed to take its course.

*Update: the ruling was published on 30 March 2021. I analysed it here.

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