Coercive control is one of the major indicators of domestic abuse homicide, but in states and territories across Australia, besides Tasmania, it is not a criminal offence or considered in any legislation.
This week the ABC reported that the NSW Labor opposition is proposing a new bill that would criminalise coercive control, with perpetrators facing between 5 and 10-years jail time.
When people think of domestic abuse, often physical violence is the first thing that comes to mind but in reality, coercive control is the most foundational element of domestic abuse.
It refers to a pattern of dominating and controlling behaviour that essentially strips away the victim’s freedoms and sense of self. It can include emotional, psychological and financial abuse.
A perpetrator of coercive control overtakes their victim’s autonomy by using behaviours like domination, degradation, isolation, micromanagement, surveillance, humiliation, and gas-lighting. It’s an intense cycle that ultimately creates a scenario of extreme threat, fear and confusion for the victim.
Currently, these behaviours are hidden from the justice system, and perpetrators are able to get away with trapping their victim in the cycle of abuse.
NSW Labor MP and Shadow Minister for Women and the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence Trish Doyle is spearheading the new bill to criminalise coercive control in the NSW Parliament.
“I think government’s dragging the chain here, by saying ‘we don’t want to rush in’ but the fact is, women and children are dying everyday during these delays,” Doyle told ABC Breakfast radio on Thursday morning.
“Urgent action is needed, along with community education and police training. If we want to reduce violence against women, we must criminalise coercive control.”
Doyle says the proposed bill also considers the protection of children, with perpetrators of ‘aggravated coercive control’, where children also become victims, facing a maximum penalty of 10 years jail.
Women’s Safety NSW has released a position paper this week, urging the government to prioritise criminalising the behaviour and to move away from an incident-based approach to domestic abuse.
“We already have a significant problem with victims of domestic and family violence being misidentified as abusers in our civil and criminal justice system, and this is largely because it is so focused on single incidents and we haven’t invested enough in training and specialisation of law enforcement and judicial officers,” said Hayley Foster, CEO of Women’s Safety NSW.
“Criminalising coercive control as a course of conduct with the essential elements of fear, control and a subjective standard that the conduct would likely cause the victim harm would actually go a huge way to reducing the risk of systems abuse for victims.”
Foster also says there is a risk that if coercive control is criminalised, people within the system, like police and prosecutors, may not be equipped to execute the laws as intended.
“The biggest risk, as we have seen in the UK and to a lesser extent in Scotland, is that we enact the laws and the actors in the system are not equipped with the resources and training to have the confidence to implement them as intended, and consequently that the laws are left underutilised leaving victims unprotected,” she said.
“We clearly need to invest in system reforms including substantial training and specialisation of frontline police officers, prosecutors and judicial officers if we want to get the most out of these reforms.”
Coercive control is currently criminalised in other jurisdictions around the world, including Scotland, England and Wales.