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Under U.K. Law, Jail Time For Psychologically Abusive Partners


It is illegal for both men and women to hit their spouses. It's domestic violence. But the law has little to say about what sometimes happens before the physical attacks - psychological and emotional abuse. That is set to change in England with a new law that went into effect today. NPR's Robert Smith reports from London.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Charlotte Kneer's husband was controling, especially when it came to the finances.

CHARLOTTE KNEER: When I was pregnant with our first child and I gave up work, my husband - he would make me justify every single penny, and I really felt that it was begging him for money.

SMITH: That wasn't all. He would tell her how she could communicate with her family, would threaten to reveal things about her to her friends. And eventually, he tried to strangle her. That's when she left. That's when he was arrested.

KNEER: Whilst the violence was awful - and it was - it's also the other behaviors that are so confusing.

SMITH: Because to Kneer, all of this abuse - the physical and the emotional - felt like part of something bigger - a complete dominance and control over her life. The new law taking effect today in England and Wales recognizes this, and it's considered groundbreaking. A spouse can now be arrested for all sorts of controlling and cohesive behaviors like keeping someone financially captive or isolating a partner from their friends and family.

CLARE LAXTON: Another great example would be the installation of spyware on someone's phone or computer.

SMITH: This is Clare Laxton. She's with Women's Aid, a domestic abuse charity that pushed the new law.

LAXTON: It's about that micromanaging of someone's life - to take away their choices, to take away their freedom.

SMITH: Someone who does that could face a jail sentence of up to five years in prison. Now, Laxton says the law does make clear the different between a bad relationship and an abusive relationship. A few demeaning words or a little spying on your spouse will not get you arrested. But if there's a pattern of control that impacts the day-to-day freedom of a person, that could be prosecuted.

American experts on domestic violence that I spoke to said this could be a real game changer. Evan Stark has researched this stuff for decades. He's a professor at Rutgers. And he says this new law better reflects the reality of abusive relationships.

EVAN STARK: When a woman is being controlled, she can't effectively resist or escape when she is threatened with violence. So what we're really coming to appreciate about this is that if we want to prevent homicides, we need to prevent control.

SMITH: Stark says only a few U.S. states have put in place laws that recognize these patterns. In most of the U.S., police just wait until the first serious physical assault, and then, sometimes it's too late. Charlotte Kneer, who escaped from her abusive husband, now runs a shelter in Southern England. She doesn't know if the new law will lead to many prosecutions, but she says all of this attention is bound to help.

KNEER: This will get people to understand what domestic abuse is because right now, people just think, oh, well, she got hit once in a while.

SMITH: Police and England and Wales are now being trained to spot the signs of controlling behavior and enforce the the law. Robert Smith, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.