Coercive control is a key feature of many abusive relationships. It is a pattern of behaviour perpetrators use to deliberately isolate, humiliate, degrade, frighten and control their victims and is perpetrated alongside physical and sexual violence.
There is much more we can do to support women living with this insidious form of violence. The Victorian Attorney General this week ordered a review into the possibility of new coercive control laws in Victoria, but many believe that introducing a new offence to criminalise coercive control is unlikely to improve our system. In fact, some experts suggest it has the potential to cause even more harm to the hundreds of thousands of women and children who are living with family violence every day.
One of the many issues with the introduction of a new criminal control offence is that it has the potential to actually increase rather than decrease the risk and harms associated with family violence for particular population groups who experience additional barriers to safety and justice. Professionals working in the system and the victim survivors who have experienced that system know that changing the problematic attitudes and beliefs about what drives family violence is long term work.
Early indicators show that we are having some success, as demonstrated by the National Community Attitudes Survey. In 2005 when the survey was first undertaken across Australia, 74% of respondents thought controlling someone’s social life by preventing them from seeing friends/family was a form of family violence; in 2017 when the most recent survey was conducted this had risen to 91%.
As this survey shows, for many years Victoria has been working hard to educate police, courts, professionals who work with victim survivors and perpetrators, as well as the general public about family violence. We want every Victorian to have a deeper understanding of family violence and to understand that this violence is characterised by an ongoing pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour.
However, many victim survivors – in particular those from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, women with disabilities or mental health issues and women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds – may feel unable to trust that police or the justice system will keep them safe.
Despite recent improvements, there is still a way to go to address the problematic attitudes which permeate our society and which are also present in our police force, our judiciary, and our health and social service system.
As victim survivors already know too well, where these attitudes are present, women and children living with family violence are unlikely to get a supportive response that improves their safety. In worst case scenarios, these attitudes can further marginalise of women seeking support, and leave them more unsafe and feeling more invisible than ever before.
Whilst legislative reform is one way to change culture, it is not a silver bullet and is often fraught with more risk than benefit in the longer term. Without a doubt, we need to ensure that the public and all people working in this field take coercive control seriously, but there are likely more effective ways to do this.
In 2015, the Royal Commission into Family Violence handed down 227 recommendations for reform, all of which the Victorian government committed to implement. This unique reform process set out a legislative, policy, systemic, structural and cultural roadmap – informed by evidence from practitioners, academics and victim survivors themselves – to guide a once in a generation suite of reforms to the family violence system in Victoria.
Whilst the Commission chose not to recommend criminalising coercive control, a significant number of the Commission’s recommendations were underpinned by the importance of recognising and addressing the gendered coercive and controlling dynamics in family violence relationships.
Instead of exploring further law reform, our collective energies should go towards staying the course and strengthening these existing reforms and improving the application of existing legislation, supported by improved funding for specialist family violence and women’s legal services so they can better meet the diverse needs of all women and children, rather than just those that are high risk or with complex needs.
Criminialising coercive control does not automatically equate to a stronger justice response to family violence. We must make sure that what we want to see happen – women safe, and men accountable for their actions and supported to change their behaviour – is actually going be the result of any new response to family violence.
If the government is going to explore the possibility of criminalising coercive control, they must first start by listening to the experiences of victim survivors, paying particular attention to those who already face additional barriers in accessing the justice system or in having their unique experiences of family violence understood.
This would mean collaborating not only with victim survivors themselves, but with the specialist family violence services and women’s legal services to ensure that any unintended consequences for both victim survivors and perpetrators of family violence are thoroughly identified and explored.
We need a balanced and transparent engagement process, informed by the best evidence we have available, if we are to be confident that this is the way forward for our state.