Time for Hong Kong to outlaw psychological abuse

Grenville Cross says progress elsewhere to curb domestic violence should encourage authorities here to consider extending protection to victims of emotional cruelty, which can be as harmful as physical abuse

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 March, 2016, 7:46am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 March, 2016, 7:45am

On March 1, China’s first national law prohibiting domestic violence took effect, and not before time. The All China Women’s Federation has estimated that one in four married women have experienced domestic violence, yet it receives only 40,000 to 50,000 complaints annually, with many victims being afraid to speak out. In 2014, almost 90 per cent of reported cases involved abuse of wives by their husbands, with the balance involving children and the elderly. Domestic abuse, however, has traditionally been treated as a private matter, although this should now change.

The Anti-Domestic Violence Law applies to both married and unmarried couples, and defines domestic abuse as “physical, psychological and other harm inflicted by family members”. A victim can now seek a restraining order against an abusive spouse, and the courts must rule within 72 hours of receiving a complaint. The police, moreover, are required to respond immediately to abuse reports, with the whole emphasis being on assisting the victim before greater harm results.

In Hong Kong, in 2015, police statistics reveal there were 1,464 “domestic violence crimes”, but this also seems to be the tip of the iceberg. Although the police’s Family Conflict and Sexual Violence Policy Unit tries hard to curb domestic violence, its hands are tied by fundamental weaknesses in the criminal law. While cases of physical harm can be prosecuted, emotional abuse, which is not a crime, invariably occurs beneath the radar, with culprits evading justice.

READ MORE: Hong Kong needs to learn to respect its women, to break the cycle of domestic violence

In Britain, since December 29, when the Serious Crime Act 2015 became operational, people who emotionally abuse their spouses, partners or other family members in an intimate or family relationship can face up to five years’ imprisonment. To prove psychological cruelty, however, there must be evidence of coercive or controlling behaviour towards the victim.

Coercive behaviour, the essence of domestic abuse, is defined as an “act or pattern of acts which are used to harm, punish or frighten a victim”. It can include repeated threats, humiliation or intimidation, often the precursor of violence. Victims are often placed in continuing fear of violent repercussions if they fail to follow someone else’s demands.

Controlling behaviour includes conduct intended to make someone subordinate or dependent. This may involve preventing the victim from meeting family and friends, limiting access to finances, controlling social media accounts, spying on communications, or directing aspects of their daily life, such as when they eat, sleep or go out.

Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, has said that “being subjected to repeated humiliation, intimidation or subordination can be as harmful as physical abuse, with many victims stating that trauma from psychological abuse had a more lasting impact than physical abuse”.

Home Office guidelines indicate that only emotional abuse which has a “serious effect” on the victim can be prosecuted, and this includes recurrent fears of being subjected to violence or else suffering serious harm or distress which has a “substantial adverse effect” on his or her daily activities.

READ MORE: Hong Kong’s abused wives seeking safe house accuse Welfare Department of ignoring them

Investigations into emotional cruelty are never easy, and British prosecutors and police are now being trained to recognise patterns of behaviour which meet the criminal threshold. Once prosecutions are brought, they will, moreover, be able to rely on documentary evidence, including threatening emails and text messages, bank records which show that the suspect has tried to control the victim financially, GPS tracking devices installed on mobile phones, witness statements from family and friends and evidence of isolation.

In Hong Kong, the Security Bureau must, if it wants to provide emotional abuse victims with a way out, urgently review other models. The criminalisation of coercive control is an obvious means of protecting vulnerable people, many of whom now suffer in silence. Tragedies are waiting to happen, and victims must know that the law can help them, before it is too late.

Grenville Cross SC is a criminal justice analyst