By Umberto Bacchi
LONDON, Jan 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain on Monday for the first time named economic control as a form of domestic abuse in "landmark" legislation aimed at tackling a crime that ruins millions of lives and costs billions of pounds.
It also proposed outlawing the right of abusers to cross-examine their victims in court, in a move welcomed by women's rights advocates as a long overdue step in the right direction.
"Domestic abuse costs lives and it costs money. It is happening at epidemic levels yet it has been largely hidden behind closed doors," said Katie Ghose, chief executive of the charity Women's Aid.
The government reform had the potential to create "a step change" in the national response, she said.
The proposed new laws will for the first time set a legal definition of domestic abuse to include economic abuse - the practice of controlling access to money - as well as psychological coercion and manipulation, the government said.
This would put Britain on a footing with countries such as India and South Africa, which have already updated their domestic abuse definitions to cover economic control.
The draft bill to be put before parliament also bans abusers from questioning their victims in court, which the justice minister said can cause "immense distress".
"Domestic abuse destroys lives and warrants some of the strongest measures at our disposal to deter offenders and protect victims," David Gauke said in a statement.
About 2 million people, predominantly women, suffer domestic abuse every year in Britain, the government said. It can take myriad forms, from beatings to rape, control of a partner's actions or limiting access to money, family and friends.
The crime costs England and Wales an estimated 66 billion pounds ($85 billion) annually, mostly due to its physical and emotional impact on victims - as well as costs to police, health and support services, according to research by the Home Office.
It is not the first time that Britain's Conservative government has broken ground in domestic abuse legislation.
Last year, it suggested people who abuse partners or family members could be ordered to wear tracking devices and forced to attend addiction recovery programmes.
In 2015, Britain made coercive control a crime, seeking to capture abusers who persistently undermine or control their partners through psychological means.
Local media reports show the law has netted only a couple of hundred convictions as authorities drop a majority of the cases, with about one in seven arrests ending in charges.
Other proposed measures include automatically providing victims who give evidence in criminal trials with protection and setting up a national commissioner to improve responses.
Women's rights group said the reforms did not go far enough.
"The vast majority of perpetrators remain unchallenged and unchanged. The response to survivors – adults and children - is still siloed and patchy," said Suzanne Jacob, head of SafeLives charity. "A piece of paper alone cannot protect victims and prevent abuse; it needs professionals with the right understanding, time and empathy."
Ghose of Women's Aid, said more money was also urgently needed "to make a real difference to survivors' lives." ($1 = 0.7771 pounds) (Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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