The term ‘domestic abuse’ may bring to mind incidents of physical violence, but its legal definition extends far beyond that to remote forms of harassment. As a family judge’s ruling showed, it encompasses threatening text messages, offensive phone calls and many other forms of controlling and coercive behaviour.
In the context of a bitter child contact dispute between a former couple, the mother sought a judicial finding that the father had subjected her to domestic abuse. She asserted that he had bombarded her with hundreds of threatening and intimidating text messages and phone calls, including to her workplace.
Whilst accepting that some of his messages and calls were rude and insulting, the father denied that they were threatening or amounted to harassment. He asserted that his conduct was the direct result of his emotionally distraught state and the mother’s behaviour in denying him contact with their child. He contended that his love for his child had been misinterpreted as aggression.
Ruling on the matter, the judge found the mother to be an impressive witness. She said that she had, on some days, received up to 50 messages from the father, the contents of which made her anxious and distressed. Although she had asked him to stop on several occasions, he had relentlessly persisted. She was worried that he was going to turn up at her home or at the child’s nursery.
By contrast, the father’s evidence reflected his high and self-justified perception of himself and his behaviour which suggested a lack of understanding or empathy. Despite making half-hearted apologies, he had sought to deflect blame onto the mother and minimise the consequences of his actions.
The father’s insistence that he had not been physically violent to the mother, which was not disputed, revealed his clear misunderstanding of the true meaning and extent of domestic abuse and its effect. The judge found that he had engaged in a sustained pattern of coercive, abusive, offensive and threatening behaviour, comprising both psychological and emotional abuse.