Walsh on Domestic Violence Law Reform in France
France is currently updating its domestic abuse laws. The legislation has been passed by the lower house and now awaits senate approval. There has been unusual cross-party support for the new provisions which have provoked considerable derision in the Anglophone blogosphere. There are two key changes which have been made to the law: the criminalisation of psychological abuse in intimate relationships and the tagging of people barred from the family home.
Taking the psychological abuse amendment first, the updated law provides a maximum prison sentence of three years and a fine of up to €75,000 for domestic abuse which is psychological in nature. The legislation has been accused of criminalising “nagging” but that is not the purpose of the law. Instead, the focus is on psychological violence of a severe nature. French politicians have taken a very realistic view of domestic abuse. Leonie Walker’s analysis of the abuse cycle works on what is called “symbiotic bonding” and occurs in three stages. The first stage is characterised by a rise in tension between the parties. During this time the victim attempts to explain this away by blaming extraneous factors, thereby exculpating the perpetrator. They also believe that they can control the perpetrator, thereby internalising the outbursts of abusive behaviour. They view it as their fault if they are unable to control the abuser. The second phase in the relationship is characterised by the attempts at controlling the perpetrator being unsuccessful, leading to actual abuse, which is often physical in nature. The final stage in the process is characterised by acts of contrition on the part of the abuser. They effectively “hook” the victim into the cycle by promising that they can and will change, will seek help, and promising to address the external factors on which abuse could be blamed. The new French law is designed on the basis that psychological violence always precedes physical violence and hence it too forms part of this cyclic abuse pattern. The damage done to a person’s sense of self worth is also an important aspect of this kind of abuse, so it is important that the law tackles psychological abuse in its own right and not merely for its potential to develop physical overtones.
Turning to the amendment on the tagging of barred partners, it is important to stress that this is an experiment being piloted in a number of areas. The debate about electronic tagging of barred partners can be seen as part of the debate on tagging more genereally. Usually, we tend to think of electronic monitoring of offenders as a means of controlling potentially dangerous persons in the community. Often it arises in response to prison overcrowding. It may also be the case that in any given situation, prison may not always be an appropriate sentencing mechanism, for example persons seen as causing significant civil disturbance. In these cases, curfews and exclusion orders are used to prevent people going to certain named establishments or districts at certain times. The use of these control measures is also common in the imposition of bail conditions.
Barring an abuser from the home in which they previously lived is effectively a community sanction backed by criminal threat, similar to the measures outlined above, if they breach the terms of the order. Yet people often do breach barring orders. In these cases, the onus is placed on the victim to call the police and seek the removal of the person which can be a particularly distressing incident, especially if children are present. So this tagging experiment may provide a useful form of preventative protection and ensure that the burden of enforcing the law is not placed on the victim.
Of course, there are significant concerns over tagging. In the current context, we should remember that domestic abuse is a widespread problem. In France, the government estimates that 8% of women suffer psychological abuse and 156 women in 2008 were killed by their partners. The psychological abuse changes are a response to a significant problem in French society and the tagging provision is an experiment undertaken to combat another facet of that problem.
These problems are found in Ireland and some innovative measures could be used to address the prevalence of domestic abuse. A comprehensive statistical analysis of domestic abuse in this country was conducted in 2005 by the National Crime Council in association with the ESRI. Incidents of abuse were categorised by severity and frequency, ranging from regular physical violence to isolated incidents of milder emotional abuse. The results were shocking. 29% of women and 26% of men have suffered abuse of some form. 15% of women and 6% of men have experienced severely abusive behaviour – be it physical, sexual or emotional – at the hands of a partner at some time during their lives. Severe physical abuse has been suffered by one woman in 11, and one man in 25. One woman in 12 has suffered sexual abuse, while one man in 90 has suffered sexual abuse. Severe emotional abuse has been perpetrated upon one woman in 13, and one man in 37. In sum, approximately 213,000 women and 88,000 men have suffered severe abuse, a total of 301,000 people. In 2009 COSC reported that 67% of people believe that calling a partner hurtful names is domestic abuse and that 88% believe that domestic abuse is rightly regarded as a criminal matter. In light of these figures, perhaps it is worth considering if the new French reforms are suitable for tackling abuse in Ireland.