Coercive control

There is no single agreed definition of coercive control and the behaviours and tactics associated with it can be hard to identify. They can be subtle and different in each relationship. Victims often describe coercive control as feeling like ‘walking on eggshells’ and report they need to ask permission to do small everyday things and fear the repercussions of not fulfilling their abuser’s expectations or demands. Research consistently identifies three features of coercive control: intentionality on the part of the abuser; the negative perception of the controlling behaviour on the part of the victim; and the abuser’s ability to obtain control by use of a credible threat. Generally coercive control is understood as a course of conduct aimed at dominating and controlling another (usually an intimate partner, but can include other family or ‘carer’ relationships) and is almost exclusively perpetrated by men against women. Professor Evan Stark has described coercive control as “a pattern of domination that includes tactics to isolate, degrade, exploit and control” victims. Examples of coercive control include manipulation, surveillance, isolation from friends and family, rigid rules about where the person can eat, sleep or pray, online abuse and monitoring, placing limits on economic autonomy, humiliation and threats. Coercive control depends on context, so information about the context may assist the decision-maker to identify coercive control. In situations involving coercive control the abuser draws on their specific knowledge of the victim to entrap the victim, and the tactics used to assert control may change over time and take many different forms including any of the forms of domestic and family violence considered in this bench book. The abuser may target the victim’s children to exercise control over the victim. The victim’s every day existence is often micro-managed by the abuser and the victim’s space for action and potential as a human being is limited and controlled by the abuser. The abuser’s attack on the victim’s autonomy can involve utilising systems, including the legal system (sometimes referred to as ‘systems abuse’).

Research has identified that domestic and family violence is rarely a single incident, rather it is a pattern of behaviour that may or may not include physical force, and extends beyond the home and beyond the duration of a relationship. These patterns of behaviour may occur throughout a relationship, or may be initiated or exacerbated at times of heightened risk, for example, pregnancy, attempted or actual separation, and during court proceedings. Researchers have suggested that coercive control is the “golden thread” running through risk identification and assessment for domestic violence.

The report of the Australian Law Reform Commission and New South Wales Law Reform Commission, “Family Violence – A National Legal Response” recognised that whatever degree of severity and forms domestic and family violence takes, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, damage to property, emotional abuse, social abuse, economic abuse, psychological abuse, and spiritual abuse, a central feature is that it involves a person exercising control and power over a victim. Likewise the Council of Australian Governments’ “Fourth action plan: National plan to reduce violence against women and their children 2010-2022” explains domestic and family violence as a pattern of behaviour involving a perpetrator’s exercise of control over the victim with perpetrators employing a wide range of abusive tactics to control a victim’s life. Chapter 2 of the report of the New South Wales Joint Select Committee on Coercive Control, “Coercive control in domestic relationships”, describes coercive control as a pattern of behaviour that aims to dominate and degrade a person and deprive them of their freedom and sense of autonomy.

Many who have been victims of domestic and family violence report that the most difficult forms of abuse they experienced were non-physical forms of abuse, especially emotional abuse. Many victims identify that non-physical abuse deeply impacts on their sense of self and freedom, and often continues to affect them years after separation.

Physical violence is often, but not always, present where there is coercive control. A recent Australian study examined the characteristics of violence and abuse reported by 1,023 Australian women who had recently experienced coercive control by their current or former partner. Over half of the respondents reported experiencing physical forms of abuse (54%), including severe forms such as non-fatal strangulation (27%).

In some relationships physical violence is part of the pattern of coercive control but incidents of physical violence may be routine, minor and frequently repeated. Other victims report that physical violence is rare or a once off or occurred early in the relationship, but establishes the abuser’s capacity and potential for physical violence.

In NSW, a detailed analysis of intimate partner homicides between 2008-2016 demonstrated that 99% (111/112) of the homicides were preceded by coercive control. The Queensland Domestic and Family Violence Review and Advisory Board in its 2018-19 Annual Report reported evidence of controlling behaviours by 39.4 per cent and obsessive and/or jealous behaviours by 37.8 per cent of family and domestic violence homicide offenders between 2006 and 2018.

Some judicial officers have identitified offender behaviour which demonstrates coercive control. A selection of examples are contained in the Cases tab attached to this subsection.

Some legislation explicitly recognises coercive and controlling behaviours in the definition of family violence, for example s 4AB Family Law Act.