A new law in England and Wales makes it possible for victims of domestic violence has expanded the definition of domestic abuse to include coercive and controlling behavior. This law allows victims of domestic abuse to avail themselves of legal remedies and protection even in the absence of physical abuse or otherwise threatening behavior.
According to coverage by the National Public Radio (NPR), prohibited conduct may include internet stalking, limiting victims’ access to family and friends, and limiting financial freedom or stealing money from a partner. Such conduct must exist in a pattern for it be considered abusive.
In the U.S., few states have laws in place that recognize patterns of coercive and controlling behaviors. In the absence of the expansive protections provided by the new law in England and Wales, a victim of coercive and controlling behaviors could, for example, file criminal charges for theft. However, such measures fall short of relieving the victim from the abuser’s control.
In Maryland, stalking is the only such coercive or controlling behavior that is expressly covered under the Maryland domestic violence statute. It is doubtful at the time the Maryland statutes were enacted, legislators specifically contemplated internet stalking; although, given sufficient factual evidence, one may certainly make the argument. Under certain circumstances, a case could be made that controlling or coercive conduct when viewed in the “victim’s shoes” places him or her in fear of imminent bodily harm, thereby necessitating the Court’s protection. Alternatively, Maryland’s current law may provide relief if the conduct is pervasive and places the victim in fear of imminent bodily harm.
In my experience representing victims of domestic violence and especially vulnerable populations, it is often these types of coercive or controlling conduct that are precursors to full physical abuse. The novelty of the new law in England and Wales is that it acknowledges and is aligned with the crux of domestic violence: control. In the meantime, it is my belief that, in Maryland, our statute has room for improvement.