Coercive and Controlling Behaviour – Where Are We?

As an experienced family lawyer, I have seen a noticeable increase in clients who come to see me who are suffering from domestic abuse, specifically coercive control, over the past few years.

Coercive control is a form of abuse that is often hard to detect initially: The perpetrator slowly drills away at an individual’s self-esteem, personality, and decision-making until they are often a shadow of their former selves. Coercive control is often a subtle pattern of behaviour that leaves no physical scars and is inflicted on a victim for many years, often throughout a relationship. This can be done by the perpetrator carefully manipulating the victim over many years. The impact of this behaviour has devastating effects on the individual and any family members that witness it. Therefore, it is essential not only to have consequences for this type of abuse to prevent perpetrators from being able to repeat this again and to give victims some form of justice but also to enable victims to be better protected both through the justice system and to support them moving forward. Coercive control unfortunately usually does not end when the relationship ends. It can still be inflicted from a far and can be just as traumatic for the victims and their families.

It is important to recognise coercive control is not limited to heterosexual women: Victims can be men, those from different sexualities or the elderly, for example. Men are less likely to come forward to seek help and talk about what is happening to them which can in some cases put them more at risk, despite a third of men admitting to being a victim of a coercive control relationship in a study of 2,000 UK adults.

The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 is a landmark piece of legislation for tackling domestic abuse: for example, it recognises coercive control as a form of domestic abuse. Coercive control is now a criminal offence and can carry a custodial sentence of five years. The Act provides a definition of this behaviour as “acts designed to make a person feel inferior and/or dependent by keeping them apart from friends, help and support. It can include taking advantage of their money and things they have, stopping their independence, and controlling what they want to do. An act of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten the victim.”

This legislation sets down a structure for better victim support at the outset once they have come forward and provides a framework for support at the end of an abusive relationship. Vitally, the parties no longer must be living together to fall as connected people under this Act. There is a recognition of this abuse impacting couples that are not just married or living together. The abuser does not have to be a current partner and a formal prosecution can extend to an ex-partner. There is a real awareness of the need for there to be on-the-ground training for police, social services, teachers, and all those professionals involved with dealing with these situations and having to interview, advise, and guide victims who are or were in abusive relationships. It is only with the existence of a strong and clear framework in place that there can be better support for victims. The hope is obviously to prevent the perpetrator from inflicting harm again and to guide a victim in their journey to recovery. The Act also created the role of a Commissioner for Domestic Abuse at the Government level. This is an essential role that will help create greater awareness of coercive control. The role will equally help shine a spotlight on what is needed to bring further changes.

Coercive control has been at the forefront over recent years following the pandemic, which resulted in perpetrators using lockdown to increase their control over their victims and families. Lockdown rules saw a rise in coercive control due to isolation, emotional abuse, micro-management, financial abuse, and limited ways to escape. More recently, there have been calls to reform the justice system to create further protection for victims in Court proceedings

Whilst there have been steps in the right direction with the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, there needs to be more focus on supporting those vulnerable individuals who are trying to move forward from an abusive relationship. Legislation forms part of a longer-term commitment to combating domestic abuse. This will no doubt require sustained efforts from the Government, NGOs, and individuals. Further research and evaluation into this area to help identify gaps and refine policies over time.

Domestic abuse legislation is a vital step in dealing with this common yet often hidden issue. However, in my view it must be accompanied by a holistic approach that includes prevention, continued education, support, and cultural change.

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