New ‘domestic abuse’ law could criminalise family arguments warns top Northern Ireland barrister

A leading legal figure in Northern Ireland has warned that a new law outlawing non-violent behaviour within relationships could unintentionally turn family arguments into criminal matters.

Wednesday, 8th July 2020, 7:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 8th July 2020, 10:07 am
Sarah Ramsey

Sarah Ramsey QC, chairwoman of the Bar Council of Northern Ireland (representing barristers), made the comments as the Stormont government mulls over the creation of a new law to tackle “domestic abuse”.

This is quite different from domestic violence, as it would make “controlling” behaviour and “psychological and emotional abuse” illegal.

The way the law has been drafted means that, as it presently stands, “harm would not have to be caused” for it to be a crime; instead it will be enough that some person looking at the act would “consider the behaviour likely to cause harm” (News Letter’s emphases).

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It will become an offence for a person to engage in any such behaviour “on two or more occasions”.

The maximum penalty will be 14 years.

Feminist groups and womens’ shelter organisations have been very vocal about supporting the new law.

And Ms Ramsey, in an address to Stormont’s justice committee, said she and her colleagues were generally supportive of creating a “domestic abuse” offence, and also said schools should teach children about “coercive control”.

But she went on to add: “There are challenges.”

She said: “For example, the reference at Clause 13 to psychological harm including fear, alarm, and distress – with no requirement to demonstrate the actual impact on the victim – is a low bar.

“It potentially gives considerable discretion to the PPS in making decisions around which complaints should be prosecuted.

“And this clause, when coupled with the broad list of family members in Clause 5, could potentially allow a considerable range of behaviours in intimate family relationships to fall under the ambit of this bill...

“There is a risk that a very broad spectrum of scenarios involving family disagreements could be unintentionally criminalised given that the bill is not restricted to partners and ex-partners – as it the case in Scotland under their domestic abuse act 2018.”

Earlier this year Matthew Scott, a well-known criminal barrister in central London, told the News Letter there are “obvious evidential difficulties with proving ‘emotional’ or ‘psychological’ abuse”.

Ms Ramsey made the comments at a committee meeting last Thursday.

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