Court Judgment That References Gaslighting for the First Time Welcomed by Family Lawyers

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Lorraine Harvey

Partner, Family Law

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TW: This article covers themes of abuse and violence

On the 20th January 2022 the High Court in England and Wales adopted the term ‘gaslighting’ in a ruling to describe coercive behaviours. In an all time first, it’s dubbed to be a ‘milestone’ hearing, which can help solidify many domestic and emotional abuse victims that come forward. Our Family Law Solicitors wholeheartedly welcome this landmark judgement which recognises the seriousness of gaslighting in relationships as a form of hidden abuse.

The judgement was handed down in the family courts on January 20th 2022, and Dr Charlotte Proudman, a leading human rights barrister who led the case has stated that the judges use of this terminology gives gaslighting “legitimacy and credibility”, as she warned abusers have long been warping victims’ “realities”. The term is used to describe a form of manipulation, where the abuser makes someone question their grasp on reality; forcing them to doubt their own versions of events, memories or abilities. Dr Charlotte Proudman specifically specialises in violence against women and girls, and is a research fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge, which places her at the forefront for forging a positive change.

The Landmark Case

The landmark case is the first in history that described ‘gaslighting’ in place of coercive behaviour. The case involved a child whose parents could not agree to the child arrangements, which was causing an issue amongst the family. Both parents made cross allegations of domestic abuse, following which the Court felt it would be appropriate for there to be a fact-finding hearing to consider the allegations, which took a total of five days to cover.

In cases such as this, the burden of proof lies with the person making the allegation. The standard of proof is a civil standard, therefore the Court considers the balance of probability of the incident occurring.

In the case of Re B-B (Domestic Abuse: Fact-Finding), the esteemed judge presiding over the matter, Mr. Justice Cobb, confirmed that it was okay to use the word 'gaslighting' to describe what the father did to the mother, as stated by the victim's lawyer. In addressing the concept of gaslighting, Mr. Justice Cobb articulated that "the father’s conduct represented a form of insidious abuse designed to cause the mother to question her own mental well-being, indeed her sanity."

The court findings were that the father of the child was emotionally controlling the mother, also known as coercion, and had isolated the mother socially. It was said that he often was “gaslighting her'' making her, and others, believe she has Bi-Polar disorder.

Lord Justice Cobb read in the High Court Re B-B (Domestic Abuse: Fact-Finding) (Rev1) [2022] EWHC 108 (Fam), that “Dr. Proudman's use of the term 'gaslighting' in the hearing to describe this conduct was in my judgement apposite (appropriate); the father’s conduct represented a form of insidious abuse designed to cause the mother to question her own mental well-being, indeed her sanity.’

Lorraine Harvey, a family law expert at Simpson Millar, said “the case has recognised the seriousness of Gaslighting and may help victims of domestic violence (DV) come forward for support and protection.”

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What is Gaslighting?

The term gaslighting is nothing new, though it has only been incorporated into the eyes of the law as of recently. It may not be a new phenomenon, seeing that people have used physiological abuse for many years, but the term ‘gaslighting’ is fairly new to society.

Stemming from the 1938 stage play, Gas Light, where a husband hides his hunt for his wife’s aunt’s jewellery, and makes his wife doubt herself. The story flows with the husband proclaiming that all the sounds i.e. in the roof, and the gas lights being dimmed around the home are all in his wife’s head – but they were not. That is where the term ‘gaslighting’ came around, as it represents a specific type of manipulation.

As a whole, gaslighting is a particular type of abuse where the abuser causes one to doubt themselves, their perceptions or their sanity; and it usually occurs in any kind of relationship, but particularly one where it involves an imbalance of power.

Those who endure this type of abuse will feel confused, and that they can never do anything right, but in reality this is not the case. They will often question themselves, their memories and even believe they are suffering with a mental illness. Most often, a signal of gaslighting will see the victim defend their abuser, as they feel like they are reliant on them.

The long-term effects of this abuse can include anxiety, depression, trauma, potential PTSD, chronic stress, and severe emotional distress. Putting up with constant verbal assaults is extremely debilitating, and will eventually wear away at your sense of worth, identity, self-confidence, and sanity.

Psychotherapist Stephanie Sarkis, the author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free, defines gaslighting as, “Gaslighters are master manipulators, they lie or withhold information, pit people against each other, and always place blame elsewhere, all the while gaining control over those they are gaslighting.”

What Does Gaslighting Look Like?

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, there are three simple phrases that your abuser may use:

  • “You’re crazy – that never happened.”
  • “Are you sure? You tend to have a bad memory.”
  • “It’s all in your head.”

Gaslighting Techniques

There are many gaslighting techniques that may make it difficult to identify being abused. Most often, the abuser seems harmless at first, but the techniques worsen as you become accustomed to the actions. According to the Healthy Place, the techniques are as follows:

  • Withholding – The abusive partner pretends not to understand or refuses to listen.

Ex. “I don’t want to hear this again,” or “You’re trying to confuse me.”

  • Countering – The abusive partner questions the victim’s memory of events, even though the victim is correct.

Ex. “You’re wrong, you never remember things correctly.” or “You thought that last time and you were wrong.”

  • Blocking/Diverting – The abuser changes the subject and/or questions the victim’s thoughts.

Ex. “Is that another crazy idea you got from [friend/family member]?” or “You’re imagining things.”

  • Trivialising – The abusive partner makes the victim’s needs or feelings seem unimportant.

Ex. “You’re going to get angry over a little thing like that?” or “You’re too sensitive.”

  • Forgetting/Denial – The abuser pretends to have forgotten what actually occurred or denies things like promises made to the victim.

Ex. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” or “You’re just making stuff up.”

If any of these sound familiar to you, then do not hesitate to give The National Domestic Abuse Hotline a call on 0808 2000 247. You may not know the kind of help you need, so let them walk you through it. Help is just a phone call away.

How Simpson Millar Can Help

Family Law Lawyer, Lorraine explains that molestation involves any form of physical, sexual or psychological molestation or harassment that has a serious impact on the health and well-being of the applicant or any relevant child. Molestation is not only defined as violent behaviour, it may be other forms of negative actions.

"With victims of abuse, they can consider applying for a non-molestation order to protect themselves against the other party.

"In deciding whether to make an order, the court considers the mental and physical health, safety and well-being of the applicant or any relevant child. It must be satisfied that there is evidence of molestation and that the applicant or children need protection from the court.

“Often victims worry that the Courts will not believe them particularly if there isn’t any physical evidence such as bruises,” Lorraine adds. “This can make them reluctant to start proceedings.”

This case has recognised the seriousness of Gaslighting which is an invisible abuse, and it may help victims of domestic violence (DV) come forward for support and protection – whether they are married, have children, or are simply in a controlling relationship.

Whilst coercive control has been a crime since 2015, by actually referencing Gaslighting in this Judgement victims not only will have confidence to seek support from DV groups, police etc, but will also recognise this type of behaviour is not acceptable. The landmark case is a prominent part of history, and the term will now frequently be adopted in the eyes of the court due to its severity and legitimacy.

Seek Support From Someone You Can Trust

Anyone, be it you, a loved one, or a friend, should consider reaching out to a supportive person if they experience any kind of emotional abuse. Remember, you're never alone. Reach out to the 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline at 0808 2000 247 for assistance and understanding.

Simpson Millar have been helping survivors of abuse for more than 30 years and can help you take the first steps towards making a civil claim or criminal injuries compensation claim.

Bibliography

The Independent. (2022, February 14). Landmark judgment on gaslighting in family courts. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/gaslighting-high-court-judgement-family-courts-b2014708.html

Simpson Millar. (n.d.). Lorraine Harvey. Retrieved from /our-people/lorraine-harvey/

The Independent. (2023). Charlotte Proudman. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/author/charlotte-proudman?CMP=ILC-refresh

National Domestic Violence Hotline. (n.d.). What Is Gaslighting? Retrieved from https://www.thehotline.org/resources/what-is-gaslighting/

Psycom. (2021, November 2). Gaslighting: What Is It? Retrieved from https://www.psycom.net/gaslighting-what-is-it#

HealthyPlace. (n.d.). Gaslighting: Definition, Techniques, and Being Gaslighted. Retrieved from https://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/emotional-psychological-abuse/gaslighting-definition-techniques-and-being-gaslighted

British and Irish Legal Information Institute. (2022). Case No: ZC21P00248. Retrieved from https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2022/108.html

The Transparency Project. (2022 February 11). What Is Gaslighting and What Does It Mean in Family Court Cases? Retrieved from https://transparencyproject.org.uk/what-is-gaslighting-and-what-does-it-mean-in-family-court-cases/

UK Government. (2015). Statutory guidance framework: Controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/statutory-guidance-framework-controlling-or-coercive-behaviour-in-an-intimate-or-family-relationship

UK Legislation. (2015). Serious Crime Act 2015, Section 76. Retrieved from https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/9/section/76/2015-12-29

UK Government. (n.d.). Controlling or coercive behaviour: statutory guidance framework. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/controlling-or-coercive-behaviour-statutory-guidance-framework

Lorraine Harvey

Partner, Family Law

Areas of Expertise:
Family Law

Lorraine is a Partner at Simpson Millar, specialising in Family Law for over 20 years.

She handles middle to high net value cases, including pension claims and complex trust, and also advises on pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements.

Lorraine has unrivalled knowledge of public sector pensions, in particular police pensions, having advised police officers on pension claims for two decades.

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