In family law cases, coercive and controlling behaviour is seen all too often. Sadly, it is not a new phenomenon but since 2015, when criminal law changed, such behaviour now has an identity and a social awareness allowing victims to receive much-needed recognition and support from both the criminal and family courts.
What constitutes coercive and controlling behaviour?
Controlling and coercive behaviour is a form of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is not just “walking into a door” but encompasses a spectrum of behaviours. Abuse can be financial, emotional, physical, sexual or psychological and more often than not, it starts slowly and crescendos, leaving the victim feeling powerless, isolated and lonely. A healthy relationship is one of love, trust and respect, not of domination. Abusers are fuelled by their need to empower and, crucially, to see the effect of that upon others.
In criminal law, Section 76 Serious Crime Act 2015 created the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship but did not define the behaviour in any context. It sets out that the behaviour must be repeated and continuous and have a serious effect – on at least two occasions – on the victim. The violence will cause serious distress and have a substantial adverse effect on the victim’s usual day-to-day activities. The offence has a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment.
The Family Procedure Rules 2010 helpfully sets out definitions of coercive and controlling behaviour:
- Coercive behaviour is characterised by assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation with the objective of these acts being to harm, punish or frighten the victim.
- Controlling behaviour is designed to make a person dependent on the perpetrator.
Examples of this behaviour include:
- Isolating a person from their friends and family
- Monitoring a person via online communication tools or using spyware
- Taking control over aspects of their everyday life, such as where they can go, who they can see, what they can eat, what they wear and when they can sleep
- Depriving them access to medical services
- Repeatedly putting them down and telling them they are worthless
- Enforcing rules and activity which humiliate, degrade or dehumanise a person
- Forcing the person to take part in criminal activity
- Financial abuse including control of finances
- Threats to hurt or kill
- Threats to harm a child
- Threats to reveal or publish private information
- Preventing a person from having access to transport or from working
- Disclosure of a medical condition without consent
Controlling behaviour is a range of acts over everyday life; the perpetrator often portrays their actions as “I am only doing this because I love you”, reinforcing the cycle of dependency, but such systematic bulling is never through a sense of love towards the victim and instead empowers the perpetrator. It is rarely an act in isolation but is long-term systematic abuse which builds, far more of a “sum of all the parts” analogy. If suffered over a long period of time, the abuse can feel normal and victims can even feel sympathy for the abuser.
Gaslighting is a term that wasn’t spoken about much ten years ago; however, it is not a new occurrence. Gaslighting is when your partner makes you feel that you are losing your mind, that you are losing your grip on reality and makes you question things that have happened or have been said. You have a clear recollection or memory, but your partner tells you otherwise and you begin to question yourself. Your partner is otherwise lovely to you and there are days when you get on well, peppered with incidents where your partner makes you feel in the wrong, but are you? It is a serious form of abuse but is often not recognised until months have passed by.
The family courts are far more live than they used to be in recognising controlling and coercive behaviour but proving it is not always an easy task. Such domestic abuse is often subtle and far too often it is one person’s word against the other. Physical abuse results in bruises you can take photos of. Coercive control is cunning, hidden and questionable. Keeping a record of WhatsApps, emails or a diary is the first step a person can take to build their evidence to take to the police or a lawyer. Sending those messages to a friend or family member to keep them safe is a good idea if you fear your email or mobile are compromised.
If you or anyone with you is at risk of harm or in danger, please call the police immediately.
If you would like advice on how the family courts handle coercive and controlling behaviours and your legal situation, please contact Claire O’Flinn, family solicitor, Keystone Law.