Domestic violence
Home Secretary Theresa May has proposed new legislation criminalising 'non-violent' domestic abuseFlickr

A new law criminalising "non-violent" domestic abuse has been proposed by the Home Secretary, in an attempt to crack down on psychological abuse in relationships.

Theresa May published proposals for a new offence designed to criminalise men who bully or cause emotional harm to their partners, turning non-violent "controlling behaviour" into an offence carrying a prison sentence.

What will the law entail?

The exact terms of the legislation have not yet been outlined, but could involve frightening or intimidating a partner, or purposefully humiliating them. The legislation will also criminalise isolating a victim from friends or family, or denying them access to money.

Currently, the Home Office's official definition of domestic abuse in England and Wales is: "Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality."

Yet earlier this year, May ordered chief constables to come up with domestic abuse plans by September, to specifically address cases of psychological abuse.

"The government is clear that abuse is not just physical. Victims who are subjected to a living hell by their partners must have the confidence to come forward," the Home Secretary said.

Moves have already been made by the government to improve legislation against domestic violence, including Clare's Law, a domestic violence disclosure scheme. Introduced in March after the murder of 36-year-old Clare Wood by her ex-boyfriend in 2009, the law allows police to release information about prior violent offending by a partner.

Earlier this year, the government unveiled a "Cinderella" law - which will see parents who fail to provide their children with love and affection be prosecuted for "emotional cruelty".

The changes, along with the domestic abuse laws proposed this week, mark a significant incursion by the state into "private" affairs.

What will it change?

Existing law already covers coercive and controlling behaviour, including stalking, but does not explicitly apply to relationships. According to May, the proposed legislation will tackle the "brutal reality" of abuse between partners.

Women's Aid, the UK charity working to end domestic violence, said the change would give victims the confidence to speak up about abuse sooner.

Polly Neate, chief executive of the charity, said; "This is a vital step forward for victims of domestic violence. Two women a week are killed by domestic violence, and in our experience of working with survivors, coercive, controlling behaviour is at the heart of the most dangerous abuse."

"We look forward to working closely with the Home Office, the police, and the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure this change gives victims greater confidence to speak out sooner, and perpetrators of domestic violence are identified and dealt with more swiftly and effectively."

In July, women's charities called for the government to criminalise coercive behaviour behind closed doors after the boyfriend of Jayden Parkinson, Ben Blakeley, was found guilty of her murder.

Speaking to IBTimes UK, Laura Richards, chief executive of the charity Paladin, said: "Jayden was coercively controlled by Blakeley. He had abused many other girls too. It's important the pattern of abuse and control is recognised in legislation so girls like Jayden know it is abuse."

"Early identification and protection is important," she added.

HMIC figures revealed a total of 269,700 domestic abuse crimes in the year from September 2012.