Allegations of controlling behaviour

Posted by Laura Bennett on
A new criminal offence of Controlling and Coercive behaviour came into effect on 29 December 2015, as part of the Serious Crimes Act 2015.

Sadly, I have occasionally come across allegations of controlling behaviour when I ask my clients why they believe their marriage has broken down. I have also represented clients who have had such allegations made against them.

The creation of this new criminal offence may have significant consequences for people who are the subject of such allegations, if that behaviour is referred to in a divorce petition. In order to obtain a divorce, one spouse must prove that the marriage has irretrievably broken down, evidenced by one of five facts. In my experience, the most common fact relied upon is that the other spouse (the Respondent) has behaved in such a way that the spouse requesting a divorce (the Petitioner) cannot reasonably be expected to live with him / her.  

In order to demonstrate to the Court that the marriage has broken down irretrievably, the Petitioner is required to submit a Statement of Case, which commonly gives three to five examples of the Respondent's behaviour that they find unreasonable. Any allegations of controlling or coercive behaviour would be likely to be included in this Statement of Case and there will be reference to specific examples. Examples of such behaviour that have been alleged to me in the past include the Respondent snooping through the Petitioner's online communications, isolating the Petitioner from their family and friends and repeatedly making the Petitioner feel humiliated and worthless.     

Upon receipt of a divorce petition, the Respondent is required to complete an Acknowledgement of Service, in which they indicate (amongst other things) whether or not they intend to defend the divorce proceedings. In the light of the new legislation, it is important now to be aware that if a Respondent signs the Acknowledgement of Service to indicate that they do not intend to defend the divorce proceedings, this could potentially lead to an admission under the new Serious Crimes Act 2015 if the Petitioner has alleged controlling or coercive behaviour in the divorce petition.

Unfortunately, an example of this has already come before the criminal Courts; a Respondent husband had signed an Acknowledgement of Service confirming that he would not defend the divorce, but the Statement of Case within the divorce petition gave examples of behaviour that amounted to a criminal offence under the new Statute. Upon receipt of the Acknowledgement of Service, the Petitioner wife promptly went to the police to make a criminal complaint about the husband's behaviour. The Petitioner wife argued that the husband's agreement not to defend the divorce effectively amounted to an admission of the facts. The Respondent husband was then faced with trying to withdraw his Acknowledgement of Service in the proceedings in the Family Court, to try and limit the damage in relation to the criminal investigation.

This underlines how important it is for both parties to seek legal advice before completing any paperwork in relation to their divorce proceedings. A solicitor would now be aware of the implications of signing an Acknowledgement of Service in such circumstances and would be able to advise a Respondent about their different options.

All members of the Blake Morgan Family team are pleased to offer a discount of 50% of their usual fee to new clients for an initial consultation in relation to divorce proceedings.

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Laura is a Senior Solicitor in the Family team based in Oxford.

Laura Bennett
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