Economic abuse: what does it look like and how can I stop it?

Helena French, Associate in the Russell-Cooke Solicitors, family and children team. Ellie Miles, Associate in the Russell-Cooke Solicitors, personal injury and medical negligence team.
Multiple Authors
4 min Read
Helena French, Ellie Miles

Economic abuse continues to be an overlooked form of domestic abuse. Historically, people have focused on violence and threats as what defines an abusive relationship. While people are becoming more aware that abuse can take many forms, as shown by the fact that people now talk of domestic abuse rather than simply domestic violence, economic abuse is still something which is not always fully acknowledged by the general public or indeed victims.

However, economic or financial abuse is increasingly recognised in law as a form of domestic abuse, as confirmed by the Domestic Abuse Bill which is currently going through Parliament. It is defined as "any behaviour that has a substantial adverse effect on [the victim’s] ability to (a) acquire, use or maintain money or other property, or (b) obtain goods or services."  

Economic abuse is something that often goes alongside other abusive or controlling behaviour; 85% of people experiencing economic abuse also report experiencing other forms of domestic abuse. One way that economic abuse intersects with other forms of abuse is by preventing survivors from being able to leave their abusers, because they do not have the economic independence to do so. It can also isolate them from their family and friends, which can exacerbate cycles of abuse.

Unfortunately during the Covid-19 pandemic, economic abuse has begun to affect more people. Refuge has found that 1.6 million UK adults have begun to experience economic abuse during the pandemic. What's more, recent figures released by the Office of National Statistics show that  one in five of all crimes reported during the first lockdown in spring 2020 involved domestic abuse.

It is important to highlight that economic abuse can occur in all kinds of relationships, whether the family is very wealthy or is struggling financially. While it is most commonly thought of in families that are struggling financially, the fact that a family as a whole may be wealthy does not prevent one party’s access to that money being restricted. Economic abuse is not about how much money is available; it is about how money is used as a means of control.

A recent report by Refuge has found that 16% of adults in the UK (which is 8.7 million people) say that they have experienced economic abuse. However 39% of adults have experienced behaviour which suggests economic abuse. As shown by these statistics, for people within a relationship or trying to support somebody who they believe is in an abusive relationship, it may be hard to recognise that what they are experiencing could be abuse.

What to look out for to identify economic abuse

The following checklist highlights behaviours that could be recognised as economic abuse:

  • Pressuring or forcing you to put their debt or shared debt into your sole name, or taking loans out in your name without your consent
  • Restricting access to your income and bank accounts
  • Using your bank cards without your permission, or controlling your personal and any joint bank accounts
  • Forbidding you from having personal savings or preventing you from getting ID
  • Keeping tabs on how and when you spend money, or making you ask permission to spend money
  • Making you work for their business or a family business without paying you
  • Making significant financial decisions without consulting you first
  • Refusing your access to resources like a car or mobile phone
  • Denying you the opportunity to work and obtain financial independence
  • Deliberately damaging your personal items so that you have to replace them, or deliberately damaging their own personal items and insisting that you replace them

What can you do?

If you recognise the behaviour above, you may be in an abusive relationship. It is always hard to leave an abusive relationship, but this can be made even harder if the victim does not have access to funds to enable them to leave. Given that economic abuse does not require physical proximity, it can continue, escalate, or even begin after separation, creating a significant barrier for someone seeking to rebuild their lives. However, if someone is trying to leave an abusive relationship there are options which a family solicitor can help with.

An immediate option is to obtain an Occupation Order. This is where the Court can order that the abusive party has to leave the family home, and depending on their financial position they are likely to have to continue to cover the outgoings on the family home. If the parties are married and a divorce is taking place, it is also possible to apply to the Court for Interim Maintenance or help with legal fees from the abusive partner, to ensure that you are able to continue proceedings and meet your needs until the final agreement or order is reached. Alternatively, legal fees can be met by a funding loan from a specialist provider.

If you or someone you know is in need of help, please visit our domestic abuse hub where you will find key information on urgent help, housing options and funding. Russell-Cooke supports the Green Phone Initiative set up by Only Mums & Dads through which we provide 30mins of free advice. Please reach out to one of our family experts if you feel you need advice.

Briefings Individuals & families Russell-Cooke Helena French Ellie Miles family law domestic abuse economic abuse