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Walking on Eggshells - Coercive Control

This is how many victims describe their existence and relationships under coercive control. A ‘strategic pattern of entrapment’ undermining self determination. Understanding coercive control is key to responding to common questions people ask about domestic violence like “why didn’t she just leave?"

What is coercive control?

As attitudes have changed over the years, most of us have come to understand that domestic abuse is not always limited to physical violence. In fact, it is entirely possible to be the victim of an abusive relationship without ever suffering physical violence at the hands of your partner.

‘Coercive control’ describes the pattern of behaviour that tends to characterise an abusive relationship. In addition to physical or sexual violence, such behaviour can include:

Emotional abuse: humiliation, manipulation, ‘gaslighting’, excessive criticism

Isolation: limiting their partner’s contact with friends, family, or the outside world

Financial abuse: limiting their partner’s access to money, or exerting control over how they spend it

Controlling behaviour: controlling their partner’s schedule, when they leave the house, where they go, and who they speak to

Invasiveness: monitoring their partner’s movements, internet use, reading through their text and call history, checking up on them constantly

These behaviours are employed by abusers to exert control over their partners, and their effects can be devastating. Victims often feel that leaving is not an option; they have lost access to their finances, have been isolated from those who might support them, or fear retribution from their partner.

It might be the case that an abuser is controlling, but not physically violent. This does not mean that the victim is safe – other abusive behaviours are often a warning sign for future physical or sexual abuse, and coercive control has been identified by the NSW Domestic Violence Death Review Team as the most common risk factor leading to intimate partner homicide.

The push to criminalise coercive control

In recent years, an increasing focus on the impacts of coercive control has brought more and more attention to the question of whether it should be criminalised. The movement that we are currently seeing across Australia was sparked by a number of well-publicised cases involving horrific and often deadly family violence by the victims’ partners, such as the appalling murder-suicide of Hannah Clarke and her three children last year.

The current difficulty for Australian victims is that, while individual actions like threatening or stealing from your partner are illegal, coercive control in general is not a crime. This means that, for the most part, those who are experiencing this form of abuse can’t go to the police for help. It also means that that those who abuse their partners in this way might never see any kind of punishment.

Is criminalisation the right solution?

Proponents of criminalisation hope that it will provide grounds for earlier intervention by law enforcement, thus preventing the escalation of violence and potentially saving lives. From what we have seen overseas this may indeed be the case – in January of this year, the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court handed down a ten-year prison sentence for a man convicted of coercive control. As well as providing justice for victims of abuse, decisions such as these may serve as a deterrent against other potential abusers.

However, the movement is not without its critics. Detractors argue that the high standard of proof in criminal trials may mean that ultimately, not many offenders will actually be convicted. There are also concerns that criminalisation may divert resources away from victims’ services and early intervention programs, or that police will not reliably be able to identify coercive control, which is often not as clear-cut to an outside observer as physical abuse.

Recent moves by several State governments towards criminalisation suggest that in this country, supporters will most likely win the day.

The law as it stands – why is it different in each state?

In Australia, the Commonwealth government’s jurisdiction to legislate on criminal matters is limited by the Constitution. As a result, the bulk of our criminal laws are the responsibility of State governments, and apply only within those states. The effect of this is that reforms to criminalise coercive control are not occurring at the same pace across the country.

Tasmania introduced legislation criminalising both financial and emotional abuse all the way back in 2004, far outpacing the rest of the country. Currently it is the only jurisdiction that has such laws in place.

More recently, other jurisdictions have begun to follow suit. South Australia has introduced a bill to criminalise coercive control, which would include prison time for offenders. New South Wales Parliament has established the Joint Select Committee into Coercive Control, to conduct an inquiry and potentially recommend changes to the law. The Queensland government has recently announced similar plans, to establish an independent taskforce to consult on coercive control legislation. Victoria, the ACT, and the Northern Territory have all indicated that they are considering similar reforms.

In NSW there is an inquiry underway, with over 150 submissions being made. There is also a private members' bill being considered in the NSW parliament - 'Preethi’s Bill' is named after Preethi Reddy, who was killed by her ex-boyfriend in 2019.

by Kayte Lewis & Sophie Bouhalis

If you need advice, assistance or representation in relation to family law, or domestic violence best contact Voice Lawyers or 02 9261 1954.

Kayte Lewis Principal Solicitor at Voice Lawyers is a member of the Legal Aid NSW Domestic Violence and Family Law Panels.


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