PSNI warned not to over-step powers on domestic abuse after force indicates ‘giving someone the silent treatment’ is a criminal offence

The PSNI have been warned about over-stepping their powers when it comes to intervening in people’s relationships.

By Adam Kula
Monday, 27th July 2020, 8:00 am
Updated Monday, 27th July 2020, 10:54 am
A barrister recently warned that the bill, as written, risks criminalising a wide array of family disagreements (see link below)
A barrister recently warned that the bill, as written, risks criminalising a wide array of family disagreements (see link below)

It comes after the force failed to provide any evidence that certain “domestic abuse” behaviours, which it heavily implies are criminal, are actually against the law.

These include giving someone “the silent treatment” or “emotionally injuring” them with words.

Barrister-turned-politician Jim Allister said police seem to be behaving in a “preposterous” fashion over the issue.

Fellow barrister and MP Gavin Robinson said that, on principle, he would object to any scenario where the police try to prosecute someone “where there’s no basis in law for doing so”.

It comes a couple of months after the PSNI was heavily criticised for exceeding their legal powers during the Covid lockdown (by stopping motorists from travelling to beauty spots, for example).


At the root of the whole issue is how “domestic abuse” is defined.

In recent years, following lobbying from feminist groups, the phrase “domestic violence” has rapidly been replaced by the phrase “domestic abuse”.

A number of agencies now use the term, which covers activities that stop short of being physical or explicitly threatening, such as “controlling behaviour” or “emotional abuse”.

A bill which “will create a new domestic abuse offence” was introduced to the Assembly in spring by justice minister Naomi Long.

It would criminalise “psychological and emotionally harmful behaviour”.

The bill is still being debated, and it is possible that it may never become law.

But despite this, the PSNI already describes “domestic abuse” as being a “crime” and says that its officers are “committed to bringing offenders to justice”.

However, many of the things it describes as “domestic abuse” do not actually appear to be illegal at all – at least not unless the bill becomes law.

As it stands right now, the PSNI indicates that criminal “domestic abuse” includes: “Restricting your partner’s movements, withholding finances, and emotionally injuring them with your behaviour or words” [News Letter’s emphasis].

And on a different part of the “domestic abuse” section of its website – aimed specifically at gay people – the PSNI asks people to file police reports for the following reasons:

~ If someone starts “questioning where you go, or [putting] you down for going out on the Scene”;

~ If someone gets “jealous, possessive or angry about your friends or family”;

~ If you “worry about upsetting your partner or being the cause of an argument”;

~ If you “sometimes get the ‘silent treatment’ and feel on edge”.


Taking just two possible examples, the News Letter asked the PSNI under what law it is currently illegal to “give someone the silent treatment”, or to “emotionally injure” someone “with your behaviour or words”.

The force provided no evidence that any of these things are illegal.

Instead it issued a statement in the name of Detective Chief Superintendent Anthony McNally: “It is vital that victims of domestic abuse know that help and support is available.

“I want to take this opportunity to encourage all victims – regardless of age, race, gender or sexual orientation – to come forward and report what is happening to them.

“If you are a victim, you do not have to suffer in silence. Speak out to stop it and we will help you.

“As the PSNI, it is our job to keep people safe.

“Our role is about prevention, protection and prosecution – to prevent further violence [sic], to protect the victim, children and other vulnerable people and to facilitate the prosecution of offenders.

“Anyone who is suffering from domestic abuse can contact police on the non-emergency 101 number or 999 in an emergency.

“A 24-hour Domestic and Sexual Abuse Helpline is also available to anyone who has concerns about domestic or sexual abuse, now or in the past, by calling 0808 802 1414.”


The News Letter has looked at the “domestic abuse” bill a number of times since it was first mooted in January.

It is the only media outlet which has looked in serious detail at what the bill actually contains.

Basically, it will outlaw certain non-violent behaviour within romantic or family relationships.

Crucially, harm does not need to be caused for an offence to have been committed – rather, it will be enough that an outside person looking at the words or behaviour would consider them “likely to cause harm”.

It will be an offence to engage in such behaviour twice or more.

If a child hears or sees the “abuse”, judges will consider this an aggravating factor.

The maximum sentence is 14 years in jail.

Naomi Long says this will “close a gap in the law”.

In April, she told MLAs: “For example, a perpetrator humming a particular tune might seem trivial or even go unnoticed by other family members, friends or frontline services and the police.

“But it could have a specific meaning for the victim that causes them fear when considered alongside a series of other ongoing and persistent behaviours ...

“The offence created by this bill is purposely broad to capture those types of nuanced behaviours.”

She said, for example, that the person hearing the tune may take it as a signal that they will get a beating at home (although, obviously, beating someone up or threatening to do so is already illegal).

A number of lawyers have already voiced concerns about the broad nature of the way the bill has been written (see links below).



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TUV leader Jim Allister said it would be “absurd” to say that giving someone “the silent treatment” is a crime, having failed to cite any legal basis to back that up.

“It would be unconstitutional and unlawful for them to implement a law before it is the law,” he said.

“They can’t enforce it before it happens. It does seem a bit preposterous.

“The police can only pursue matters as offences when they are offences.”

When it comes to the change in the law which Naomi Long’s bill seeks to achieve, he said: “I think the key here in all of this is it is very dangerous territory to create offences which are victimless.

“You can be guilty of something even though there is no injury to anyone.

“That seems to me to be way beyond the pale of what the criminal law should be doing.”

He said it would be “just patent nonsense” to turn blanking someone into a crime, saying: “What is the offence?

‘That you, on the first day of July 2020, did give Adam Kula the silent treatment?’

“It seems to me to be stretching the ambit of what the criminal law is supposed to be about.”

DUP MP Gavin Robinson said: “I’d wish to explore it further with the police.

“But if it is an invitation for people to engage and allow the police to explore their domestic circumstances to establish if crimes are being committed, given the nature of under-reporting [of domestic offences], I’d be comfortable with that.

“But clearly I’d have a problem if they were seeking to prosecute where there’s no basis in law for doing so.”

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