In a welcomed judgement, the family courts have recognised gaslighting as a form of domestic abuse for the first time. The term ‘gaslighting’ refers to a type of subtle psychological abuse, which makes the victim question their own sanity. It is a method adopted by abusers to allow them to manipulate and control their partners.
Whilst a form of coercive control (which has been a crime since 2015 following the Serious Crime Act 2015) the term gaslighting has never been given a legal definition. The terms derives from the 1930s play and subsequent Hollywood film called ‘Gas Light’. In the play, the protagonist convinces his wife that she is going insane by dimming the lights in her home, along with other small manipulations and succeeds in convincing her that she is going insane. The result of this manipulative and coercive behaviour is his wife becoming isolated and dependent upon him, all the while he appears as caring and loving.
Today, the term has been used to describe a form of domestic abuse which manipulates victims into feeling that they have lost their grip of reality, lose confidence in themselves, and therefore become increasingly dependent upon the perpetrator of abuse. Solace, a London-based charity supporting victims of domestic abuse, describe gaslighting as an aspect of coercive control which "increases the isolation and vulnerability of the victim, thereby increasing the abusers control". Gaslighting behaviour is a very effective method of control, as it is often very subtle and difficult to identify. This means that the behaviours of the perpetrators can be overlooked and insufficiently dealt with by the family courts.
The case referred to in this article was heard in late 2021, with the victim accusing her partner of domestic abuse and rape. Her barrister Dr. Proudman, praised the judgement of Mr. Justice Stephen Cobb as a ‘landmark’ case for the family justice system. It has also received wider approval; Ruth Davison, the chief executive of Refuge has been quoted as saying that Refuge is in support of "any step forward" which recognises the "complex ways in which women experience domestic abuse".
Family Courts deal with allegations of domestic abuse frequently, and that can present a challenge. With increasing workload and reduced court time, it can be difficult for the Court to effectively deal with these issues, as abuse is often insidious and not easily recognised. There is now recognition of the need for the courts to develop and improve the ways in which they deal with these issues.
This judgement, which now provides judicial recognition of this form of insidious coercive control, legitimises experiences of many victims and can be drawn upon in other family court proceedings. With the shocking statistic that one in four women will experience domestic abuse at some point in their lifetime, this judgement can only be seen as a positive development.
The term gaslighting has been used in a published High Court judgment in the family courts for the first time ever in a “milestone” hearing.