Coercive control shown through a person being entangled in chains by their partner

Coercive control on the big screen

The new Anna Kendrick film – Alice, Darling – has been praised for its portrayal of coercive control on the big screen. Sharon Horgan’s smash hit TV drama “Bad Sisters” has also recently included a coercive control storyline front and centre, helping to shine the spotlight on this issue which was only recognised legally since 2017, when it was included as a form of domestic abuse. The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 also emphasised that domestic abuse is not just physical violence, but can also be emotional, controlling or coercive, and economic abuse.

You can understand why the physical side of domestic abuse has traditionally been portrayed more popularly in film and TV dramas – coercive control can be subtle and difficult to recognise – even for those in the couple. This also means it can be a tricky issue for lawyers and the courts to deal with.

Thankfully, there is a growing awareness in the public consciousness and in the legal profession and we’re seeing more case law coming through the courts which is helping to build a useful picture of what coercive control looks like and how to ensure justice is done for those who have suffered.

More broadly, we’re also seeing domestic abusers being dealt with more seriously – with a recent announcement confirming that the most dangerous domestic abusers will be put on the violent and sex offender register. This proposed legal change will see these individuals monitored more closely by the police, prison, and probation services so they “don’t fall through the cracks”.

However, when it comes to coercive control, more could be done and the courts have been criticised for an inconsistent approach to these cases.

Part of the problem with properly identifying coercive control is that it can be a very personal type of control. Often, coercive control will be about isolating the victim and undermining their confidence. Practice Direction 12J of the Family Procedure Rules uses the following definitions:

  • “Coercive behaviour” means an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten the victim;
  • “Controlling behaviour” means an act or pattern of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.

However, these cases are often not so straightforward. This was recognised in the recent case of F V M [2021] EWFC 4, one of the first cases to deal comprehensively with allegations of coercive control.  In this case, the judge, Mr Justice Hayden, recognised that the usual “formulaic discipline of a Scott Schedule” may not capture the true extent of coercive control in a relationship, which is more easily recognised by taking a more holistic view of the pattern of behaviours and domestic abuse in the relationship, “possibly over many years, in which particular incidents may carry significance which may sometimes be obvious to an observer but to which the victim has become inured”.

Hayden J also called for more awareness and training in the legal profession to spot coercive control. This is essential – particularly so that all family lawyers are comfortable and confident pointing out potential patterns of coercive behaviour when a client might not have identified it themselves. It’s also important to remember coercive control looks different in different cultures. My practice focuses on supporting international families, and coercive control obviously has distinct cultural nuances too, which lawyers must be aware of.

Although things are getting better and awareness is growing – through more discussion in the profession and also through wider public discourse and platforms like TV and films, more does need to be done.

According to crime survey figures published in November by the Office for National Statistics, 2.4 million adults in England and Wales experienced domestic abuse in 2021 and almost three-quarters of the victims were women. This is clearly a significant problem, which needs growing attention.

Iwona Durlak, Senior Partner, at IMD Solicitors

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