Coercive Control – Time for law to change in favour of women?

Coercive control is a form of domestic abuse that involves a behavioural pattern of acts such as manipulation, gaslighting, humiliation, intimidation, and threats that erode your esteem and independence.

Examples of coercive and controlling behavioural patterns include taking control of or heavily regulating personal finances, restricting access to your friends and family, and psychological manipulation that causes you question your sanity, memory, or judgement.1

Coercive control is not physical abuse, but causes devastating emotional trauma and, in most cases, escalates to acts of physical or sexual violence.

Coercive control is a widespread problem with 5.8% of women reporting to have experienced it according to a survey of 15,000 women by the Australian Institute of Criminology.2

The United Kingdom acts as the global precedent for criminalising coercive control, which occurred following the passage of the Serious Crime Act in 2015. Tasmania is the only state that criminalises aspects of coercive and controlling behaviour including prohibiting economic control, emotional abuse, and intimidation.3 Similarly, the New South Wales Opposition has recently introduced a bill seeking to criminalise coercive control.

However, while the issue has continually been debated in Australia, no law reform has yet occurred. Arguably, the 2020 Family Violence Protection Act in Victoria does criminalise behaviour that controls another person, including economic, emotional, or psychological abuse.4

Proving patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour may be difficult in court and successful reform is reliant on victim’s proactive cooperation with police.

However, the Australian judicial system’s perspective of family violence in Australia is isolated and only accounts for individual instances of violence. This is in juxtaposition to adopting an approach of pre-emptive prevention that interrupts the emotional abuse and acts of physical violence before they happen.

Additionally, some argue that actions of coercive control, when viewed singularly, while unpleasant, does not constitute criminality. However, outlawing this form of emotional abuse does not seek to punish singular acts of poor behaviour but behavioural patterns that cause serious psychological harm and intrude on your human rights.

Anecdotes from charges made in Scotland, where coercive control is criminalised, talk of harm to pets, destruction of property and acts that threaten violence.5 The victims were able to approach law enforcement and prevented behaviours that caused extreme emotional damage and were likely to escalate into acts of physical harm.

In Scotland, the 2018 Domestic Abuse Act led to 1065 charges of coercive control being reported in 2019-20. 96% of these charges were prosecuted showing the effective of this legislation.6

Former Family Court Chief Justice, Alistair Nicholson commented on his view that acts of ‘intimate terrorism’ should be made illegal.

“I think the pattern of shutting someone off from their friends and relatives is a very common feature of that sort of behaviour. And I think it’s one of the more frightening ones because [victims] become too scared to seek help.

Importantly, His Honour states that “Police need a lot more training in the dangers of that. They’re inclined to dismiss it unless something overt has happened; unless there’s been some incident to cause the problem.7’’

We would like to see the law changed to curb family violence in Australia and prevent this drastic emotional abuse but question the overlap with the Family Violence Protection Act 2020. Perhaps the most needed improvement is greater Police training in having Officers recognise lesser observable forms of abuse.

If you believe you are experiencing acts of coercive and controlling behaviour and would like advice on domestic abuse and your legal position, please contact one of our specialist lawyers by phoning 9995 9155.

Other domestic and family violence support services include:

Notes

  1. Huizen, Jennifer. “What Is Gaslighting? Examples and How to

Respond.” Www.medicalnewstoday.com, 14 July 2020,

www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/gaslighting#:~:text=Gaslighting%20is%20a%20form%20of.

Accessed 2 Feb. 2021.

 

  1. “New Report Sheds Light on Sexual Assault in Australia.” Australian Institute of Health and

Welfare, 28 Aug. 2020, www.aihw.gov.au/news-media/media-releases/2020/august/new-report-

sheds-light-on-sexual-assault-in-australia

 

  1. Mcmahon, Marilyn, and Paul Mcgorrery. “Criminalising Emotional Abuse, Intimidation and

Economic Abuse in the Context of Family Violence: The…” ResearchGate, unknown, 2017,

www.researchgate.net/publication/311453772_Criminalising_emotional_abuse_intimidation_and_ec

onomic_abuse_in_the_context_of_family_violence_The_Tasmanian_experience. Accessed 11 Feb.

2021.

 

  1. Authorised by the Chief Parliamentary Counsel I Family Violence Protection Act 2008. 21 Oct. 2020.

 

  1. ABC News In-depth. “What Is Coercive Control, and What Would Laws That Could Jail

Perpetrators Look Like? | the Drum.” YouTube, 15 Sept. 2020,

www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDkFC6oTA00. Accessed 11 Feb. 2021.

 

  1. McQuillan, Rebecca. “Domestic Abuse Charges at Highest Level in Four Years.” Holyrood, 8 Sept.

2020, www.holyrood.com/news/view,domestic-abuse-charges-at-highest-level-in-four-years.

Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.

 

  1. King, Madonna. “Ex-Family Court Chief Wants Coercive Control Laws to Criminalise ‘Intimate

Terrorism.’” The Age, 19 Nov. 2020, www.theage.com.au/lifestyle/life-and-relationships/ex-family-

court-chief-wants-coercive-control-laws-to-criminalise-intimate-terrorism-20201119-p56g4b.html.

Accessed 11 Feb. 2021.