Recently, some states in Australia have begun considering the implementation of a law criminalising coercive control. Similar laws were recently introduced in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. So what should you know about the criminalisation of coercive control?
1. What is coercive control?
Although the behaviours that constitute coercive control have long been recognised by researchers in domestic abuse, the term coercive control was first coined by Evan Stark in 2007. Coercive control covers a wide range of behaviours used to dominate and control the victim including:
2. Why do supporters want to criminalise coercive control?
Given the pervasive nature of these sorts of abuse, it is perhaps unsurprising that many would like to see these behaviours criminalised. As the law in Australia currently stands, many coercive control behaviours can be very difficult to prosecute. Because the system currently takes an episodic approach to domestic violence and abuse, and relies on an intent to cause harm, individual incidents need to be viewed as intentionally harmful criminal events in order for the court system to charge the offender. However, this approach has limitations.
Firstly, unlike most crimes (e.g., theft) domestic abuse is cumulative. This means that a seemingly minor individual incident might be harmful when experienced as part of a pattern of ongoing behaviours. Often it is the repeated victimisation that causes lasting harm. Additionally, some abusers may not intend to cause harm but simply believe that their victim’s behaviour needs to be altered. This belief does not however, negate the harm caused.
Secondly, there are cases where a victim of abuse may resist their abuser in a verbal or physical altercation. In these cases, the incident-based approach can lead to charges being brought against the victim. Supporters of the new law argue that criminalising coercive control would allow evidence from outside of the specific incident to be brought forward, potentially protecting victims against being miscategorised as perpetrators.
Recognising what is and is not abuse is often challenging and contested. New coercive control laws would help to send a clear message that these behaviours are abusive and therefore, unacceptable.
3. Why do detractors have concerns?
If criminalising coercive control has the potential to do so much good, why are some people against this proposed law? Those opposed to criminalising coercive control have several key concerns. However, opposition generally reflects concerns regarding the implementation and application of the law rather than the spirit in which it is intended.
Firstly, there needs to be a concrete way to inform victim/survivors of the existence of the coercive control law, and how it might be of use to them. There must also be education for law enforcement officers and first responders. Many are concerned that even if victims/survivors wish to use this law, if the offence is implemented without accompanying shifts in perspective from the first responders, law enforcement, and all others involved in the legal system, then outcomes will not change optimally for victim/survivors.
Further, without victim supportive attitudes from all those involved in the legal system, some worry that a coercive control offense will become another avenue for abusers to use the courts and the law to further their abuse. Legal cases can be a public platform for perpetrators to undermine and humiliate their victim, attacking their character, every decision they have made, and every aspect of their life. Additionally, trauma can impact memory and recall. Because of this, the person who presents the most coherent story may often be the abuser, someone typically practised in the art of manipulation. Some believe that this law runs the risk of being diverted to the prosecution of victims, particularly if the victim has resisted their abuser on several occasions.
Finally, it is important to note that the legal system is not right for everyone. Some victim/survivors may not feel that bringing a legal case against their abuser is worth the risk of possible retaliation, whilst others may simply not want to go through a court case where they will be forced to relive their trauma. It is essential that implementation of a coercive control law does not detract from other responses to abuse such as counselling programs for victims and perpetrators (whether they separate or remain together), housing assistance for victim/survivors, and support for survivors and their families to help them escape their abusers.
Criminalising coercive control has potential to be a step in the right direction. However, any attempts to implement such a law should be carefully considered, with every effort made that the implementation of criminalising coercive control benefits victims.
To learn more about coercive control, you can access resources here and here.
- By Kiara Minto
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.