Last month, some of Britain’s top divorce lawyers gathered on the island of Jersey for Corbett Le Quesne’s annual International Family Law Conference. The theme of this year’s conference, unusually, was financial abuse and coercive control in high-net-worth divorces.
The Domestic Abuse Act 2021, as amended, introduced the concept of economic abuse as an aspect of domestic abuse into law.
Examples of economic abuse include one party to a relationship having sole control of family capital and income, restricting a victim’s access to money, credit facilities, goods or services, and interfering with a victim’s education, training or employment.
Coercive control is a hot topic in family law currently. No longer viewed as a milder type of abuse accompanying more serious physical violence, it is now understood to be at the heart of all domestic abuse relationships.
Coercive control describes the power dynamic between perpetrator and survivor, and all the subtle, insidiously harmful ways that a person privately controls their partner behind closed doors.
Sometimes there is also violence, at other times sexual or financial abuse; these behaviours are some of the ways that the constant underlying drive to control is expressed and exerted.
Family court can facilitate abuse
In many abusive marriages, the control continues after separation. For wealthier couples, the battleground is invariably money. This post-separation abuse is, very often, unwittingly permitted and even facilitated by the Family Court.
During the course of a marriage, a couple may appear to outsiders to be simply choosing to inhabit traditional gender roles, with a wife (typically) receiving an allowance from her husband. Many couples do choose freely to live in this way, but there are also a significant number of marriages in which a party’s financial dependency on the other is coerced.
Behind the scenes victims in such relationships may be expected meticulously to account for their spending, pressured into abandoning careers, giving up their own income and assets, or taking on large loans and mortgages. They may be deprived of any information about financial matters. The threat that they will ‘get nothing’ if they leave the marriage is a common theme.
Typically, the extent and impact of this control and abuse only becomes apparent upon separation, when a victim finds that they can no longer rely on their spouse for financial support and has little, if any, understanding of their supposedly shared finances.
They may be unaware that the law gives equal value to a spouse’s contributions to a marriage in looking after the home and caring for the family. They are also likely to have experienced various other abusive behaviours during the marriage, eroding their self-esteem and isolating them from their support network.
Financial remedy proceedings in the Family Court often become the last remaining channel through which a perpetrator of domestic abuse can continue to control and punish the victim.