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Coercive abuse and how a private client lawyer can help

Date:25 SEP 2018
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Director of SFE (Solicitors for the Elderly)

Coercive abuse became a criminal offence under the Serious Crimes Act in 2015. We define coercive abuse as the act of coercive or controlling behaviour in an intimate or family relationship.

Family lawyers will often be involved with clients who are suffering from coercive control or domestic violence and are aware of the steps that they can take, through the courts, or with police involvement to protect their clients.

However, the private client lawyer also has a role in protecting the interests of victims – this may be before or after abuse comes to light, as well as being alert to what behaviour is considered coercive abuse. It is important for private client lawyers, as well as family lawyers, to understand and advise of what steps their clients can take to protect themselves.

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Examples of coercive control can include:

  • Isolation

  • Threats

  • Humiliation

  • Physical abuse (sometimes)

It may be that your client is no longer allowed to make their own decisions, are stopped from seeing their friends, and their movements are closely monitored. Increasingly the victim will become accepting of the behaviour and feel trapped in the situation they are in. The perpetrator may take control of the finances, accuse the victim of lying, cheating and control or bully the victim into submission.

Coercive abuse differs from domestic violence in that there is no physical evidence, making it difficult to asses or notice. It is important therefore, to be vigilant in spotting the signs of coercive abuse when seeing clients interact together. For example, between an elderly client and their younger counterparts (be it son or daughter or grandchildren), if a third party states “this is what mum wants” or words to that effect, make sure that “mum” is consulted on her own and these instructions come from her.

When  a family lawyer is already dealing with someone who has been the victim of  coercive control, can the private client lawyer help?

Yes - firstly, it is important to ensure that the victim has a will in place as to not allow the perpetrator to inherit under the rules of intestacy. Intestacy is the condition of the estate of a person who dies without having made a valid will or other binding declaration.

Where the victim is married, then the spouse will almost always be the main beneficiary under a will or stand to inherit under intestacy. Consequently, a suitable will should be created to protect the victim’s wishes, whether or not this is an interim measure until a divorce is finalised. It is vital that issues relating to ownership of property are included at this time to ensure that the victim’s share of any jointly owned property are preserved. A simple severance of joint tenancies will enable the victim to ensure that those assets pass to the ‘right’ people and that it is not left to chance.

Aside from wills, the private client lawyer can assist in the production of Lasting Powers of Attorney (LPAs), for both property and finance and health and welfare. An LPA may not be needed immediately but are important in ensuring the victim has control of their property and finances in the case of incapacity. A property and finance LPA allows the victim to choose a trusted person to make decisions about how to spend their money and the way their property and affairs are managed.

The health and welfare LPA allows the victim to appoint a person to look after their personal welfare and healthcare. It allows the attorney(s) to make decisions regarding their welfare and health care if you have lost mental capacity. It would allow them to decide on living, the type of healthcare and medical treatment received, including life sustaining treatment.

Although family lawyers are aware of the steps that they can take, through the courts, or with police involvement to protect their clients, it is important to consider referring matters to their private client colleagues, to ensure every form of protection is put in place.