London — People who use repeated threats, humiliation and intimidation to control their intimate partners or family members could face prosecution in England and Wales under a law which became effective on Tuesday.

“Coercive or controlling” behavior can now be prosecuted as a crime punishable by a fine and up to five years in prison. It can be applied only when the behavior has had a “serious effect” on the victim’s life or causes them to fear violence if they don’t comply.

Central government guidance for police enforcement published earlier in December says it closes a gap in existing laws, and quotes a 2007 report suggesting that coercive control is the most common and dangerous way in which women are abused.

Controlling or coercive behavior is “primarily a form of violence against women and girls,” the government’s Home Office said. It advises enforcers to “consider the role of gender in the context of power and control” that exists in heterosexual relationships.

Authorities say stopping someone from socializing, controlling their social media access or using apps or spyware to put them under surveillance will be covered by the new legislation. It is supposed to apply only in cases where the offending behavior is repeated or chronic.

The guidance says making threats to publish personal information — it mentions “outing” someone as a prime example — can also be viewed as criminal behavior, as can repeatedly telling someone they are worthless.

Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders says this type of behavior “can limit victims’ basic human rights” by reducing their freedom of movement and their independence.

“This behavior can be incredibly harmful in an abusive relationship where one person holds more power than the other, even if on the face of it this behavior might seem playful, innocuous or loving,” she said. “Victims can be frightened of the repercussions of not abiding by someone else’s rules. Often they fear that violence will be used against them, or suffer from extreme psychological and emotional abuse.”

Many victims say the trauma from psychological abuse is worse than the trauma of physical abuse, Saunders said.

The new legislation was created after a majority of people consulted by the government said that existing abuse laws did not offer sufficient protection.

Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said in a statement that the advocacy group is “thrilled” with the new law. She said coercive control is at the heart of domestic abuse.

“Perpetrators will usually start abusing their victim by limiting her personal freedoms, monitoring her every move and stripping away her control of her life,” she said. “Physical violence often comes later.”


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