What Is Domestic Coercive Control?

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Off the back of a New South Wales government public inquiry which began in October 2020, it was recently announced that coercive control will become a criminal offence in Queensland by the end of 2023.

The 2020 public inquiry was the subject of more than 100 submissions on how the state could respond to the growing cases of domestic abuse, with the overwhelming recommendation being to criminalise offenders of the behaviour.

In the time since the public inquiry took place in NSW, an inquest into the murder of Hannah Clarke was also carried out. Hannah was a young mother from Queensland who was killed along with her children by her estranged husband, who had a history of using coercive control against her. This inquest triggered a response from the Queensland government to criminalise the behaviour as part of a $363 million domestic violence program.

What is coercive control?

Coercive control is a type of domestic abuse, which is also referred to as ‘intimate partner violence’. It can be described as repeated patterns of behaviour used by the perpetrator to impose power and control over another person as a way of diminishing their autonomy and self-esteem.

Coercive control cannot be defined by one single type of abuse and can include multiple types of aggressive and intimidating behaviours, including physical, sexual, psychological, emotional or financial abuse. In Australia, coercive control is often found to have existed in cases where intimate partner homicide has occurred.

Coercive control can manifest in many forms but is typically categorised as an identifiable pattern of micro-management of the daily life of the victim.

The victim’s dignity, identity and liberty can be harmed as a result of coercive control as well as their physical and psychological well-being.

What does coercive control look like to an outsider?

Although the acts that contribute to coercive control may not seem so harmful in isolation, once they are viewed together the full extent of the behaviour emerges.

It can be difficult to pick up on signs that a person is the victim of coercive control if you are outside the relationship, but tell-tale signs may include when someone:

  • has to ask their partner for permission to do things a person would usually have the freedom to do;
  • does not have access to their own money and/or has to ask their partner for access to funds;
  • is becoming withdrawn and more secretive about their personal life;
  • is anxious, stressed and/or depressed;
  • is cutting their friends and family out of their life for no discernible reason;
  • is lacking the self-esteem they used to have;
  • is fearful of communicating via text or email; and
  • receives unannounced visits from their partner at inappropriate times (such as during the work day or when they are out with friends).

Why is it important to prosecute perpetrators of coercive control?

In the first five months of 2022, 22 women were killed in Australia by violence. There is a strong link between coercive control and homicide carried out by intimate partners, which is why the public inquest received a unanimous recommendation to criminalise and curb the behaviour before it exacerbates.

Prosecuting coercive control – is it difficult?

The difficulty with criminalising coercive control is that there is a fine line between the reasonable dynamics of a relationship and the point at which behaviour becomes controlling and abusive. A situation where one partner takes control, such as setting a budget for groceries or planning meals, is quite different to controlling behaviour, such as limiting the amount, frequency and ease of which their partner has access to funds or dictating what their partner will eat. The line is so fine, in fact, that it can be difficult to properly legislate and in jurisdictions where coercive control has been criminalised, such as Scotland, charges are less likely to be laid or progressed compared to other, more violent domestic violence offences.

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