As a new law on domestic violence comes into effect today, Miriam O'Callaghan took a look at what exactly the offence is.

Today, a new law on domestic violence comes into effect, one which aims to tackle one of the more pernicious and unseen aspects of domestic abuse: coercive control.

As only the third country in the world to introduce such a law, behind England and Scotland, Ireland vaults over another frontier in becoming a more compassionate country, but what exactly is coercive control and how can we spot it? More pertinent, perhaps, how can we protect people from something that's so often very subtle?

These are the questions posed this morning on Today With Miriam O'Callaghan as the host was joined in studio by Director of Women's Aid Margaret Martin and lecturer in law at NUI Galway, Dr Conor Hanly.

Coercive control is formally defined as psychological abuse in intimate relationships that causes fear of violence or serious alarm or distress that has a substantial adverse impact on a person's day-to-day life, manifesting as a pattern of intimidation or humiliation involving psychological or emotional abuse".

It has been included in the Domestic Violence Act, which defines the legal protections available to those affected by domestic violence.

Speaking this morning, Martin said: "I think it's really interesting that this sort of abuse has been recognised because the thing about domestic violence is it is very much a pattern of different behaviours and very much repeated behaviours, and most crimes are about one single incident of assault, [like] burglary etc."

What counts as coercive control?
Martin noted that a key factor for people on to understand is that in domestic violence cases "some of the things may seem very small, but the impacts on a woman who is continually being abused in that way can be huge".

The impacts on a woman who is being controlled in this way can be huge

In many cases that Women's Aid has dealt with through their helpline, Martin said, the patterns they most often hear our efforts at "controlling their freedom of movement, their freedom of association, who they spend time with".

She explained that in the period around the New Year and the celebrations that come with it, "typically what women find is they're controlled about who they go out with, how long they spend there". She notes there could be a "jealous surveillance of friends or family, ex-boyfriends etc".

"If somebody knows you well, they know your 'crumple zone' in a sense and they know how to undermine you and they know how to put you down".

Whether it's poking at sensitive issues such as weight or family dynamics or humiliating someone publicly, there are pernicious ways to abuse a partner in ways that elude immediate notice, unlike a black eye or a bruise.

Martin also notes that these seemingly smaller but nonetheless severely damaging patterns can be written off as momentary lapses in good humour or expressions of a separate, once-off frustration rather than a pattern of abuse.

"It's ongoing. It's almost like if you imagine Ireland when we get misty rain, we just keep getting wetter an wetter and wetter the longer you experience it."

Where is the crossover? How do you prove it?
Hanly states that it's "quite difficult" to legally prove coercive control for many of the reasons that Martin outlined. "The first thing [the prosecution] has to establish is the fact of controlling or coercive behaviour, which is probably going to require some form of evidence or pattern."

Next, the prosecution has to prove the effect that the behaviour has on the person, which would be measured alongside certain "thresholds" ranging from moderate to severe effect. Finally, the prosecution would have to gauge how a "reasonable person" would view that behaviour.

One of the main obstacles would be ascertaining when something was said in a moment of temper and what is part of an ongoing pattern of abuse, all of this done some time after the alleged events took place.

"It's not impossible, but it's going to be difficult."

A new concept
With such legal quagmires posed, it's worth wondering if there will be additional laws introduced to allow these processes to run and be integrated. Before this, however, Martin believes the priority should be on training, from the Gardaí responding to that call for help to the clerk working in the court. "This is a new concept in terms of legislation, as far as I can see."

"What we want to see is the development of good practice in relation to this. That has got to start with really good comprehensive training so that people understand the dynamics of domestic violence because a one-off thing is completely different to intentional abuse, and that is hard to prove."

One of the outstanding issues when it comes to domestic violence is that Ireland lacks a domestic violence offense, although we are equipped with many laws that can be brought into play in such a case. The problem, as Miriam pointed out, is with implementation and deployment.

There are laws to cover assault, harassment, rape and homicide "but all of that is absolutely useless without proper enforcement", said Hanly. He explains that there are some Guards who understand the offences, are creative with how they approach them and are superb in their handling of such situations, whereas others are seriously lacking.

One welcome addition to this legislation is the introduction of an out-of-hours District Court service, which is particularly welcome in this difficult period between the holidays when court services will not be available until the beginning of next week.

The bill is also more inclusive, as it has been extended to dating couples, who are not living together and do not have a child in common. Martin calls the group "a very significant cohort" which is made up of many younger women who now have access to legal protection.

"I think what will really make the difference for women will be getting good responses right from the get-go, when they go into the Gardaí to report or when they make a 999 call, and a very consistent response all the way through that", Martin said.

"A lot of women persist, and then give up."

Not all men
In all discussions of domestic violence, it is crucial to avoid stereotypes when it comes to what a 'victim' looks like. This is particularly necessary for representing male survivors of domestic violence, as Hanly says that, in a sense, men affected by domestic violence are sort of unseen.

"Even ten years ago, the suggestion that men could be victims of domestic violence would probably have resulted in some kind of derision. There is research that suggests that men suffer domestic violence at much higher rates than is commonly supposed, typically of a different nature because men, they're bigger, they're stronger, they can fight."

However, he notes that coercive control is typically the kind of abuse male survivors of domestic abuse would report, rather than the more physical forms.

The misconception is that you must be physically hurt to contact supports

What steps can be taken?
Just as coercive control can be difficult to detect from the outside looking into a relationship, so too can it be hard to spot when you're in the relationship itself.

As behaviour worsens and each iteration of abuse becomes a new normal, low self-esteem is just one of the many factors that can stop people from seeing the reality of their situation.

Martin said that it can start from incidents that seem small but work to a pattern that may be easily forgiven in the moment and forgotten. These can include being called derogatory names instead of their first names or having time spent with friends or family "disrupted" by jealous, suspicious or angry texts from their partner.

"If they have any doubts and want to talk about it, a lot of people still believe you need a bruise, you need to be punched, you need to be kicked to contact a domestic violence service. Our helpline is available 24/7, we understand this issue and it's a really good space for somebody who's experiencing this or somebody who cares about somebody experiencing it."

To listen back to the full interview, click the video above.

If any of these issues affect you, and you need to talk to someone, you can reach Women's Aid at 1800 341 900 or find their website here.