What is coercive control in family law?

coercive control in family law

By cropped Clara Suki

· Read time: 5 minutes

Coercive control in family law refers to patterns of behaviour that are used by an individual to manipulate and control their partner.

It generally encompasses behaviour that makes the victim feel scared, intimidated, and guilty.

This is a sign of abuse in a relationship and is commonly used to ensure that the victim remains dependent on the abuser. Coercive control can occur in domestic violence situations and can sometimes be difficult to identify. 

It is important to ensure that individuals are able to leave unhealthy relationships. Hence, if someone finds themself in a situation where coercive control is being used, it is important to seek help and legal advice. 

Examples of coercive control in a relationship

Common examples of coercive control in a relationship include: 

  1. The abuser isolating the victim from friends, family, or other supportive networks
  2. Controlling behaviour regarding what the victim can or cannot do
  3. Seeking to control the victim’s health and their body
  4. The victim having no privacy 
  5. The abuser limiting the victim’s access to money or other financial resources 
  6. Threatening the victim’s children, property or pets
  7. Bullying behaviour towards the victim (for example, name calling or physical violence). 
  8. Making jealous accusations to make the victim feel guilty. 

These examples encompass only a small reflection of what coercive control can look like in a relationship. Ultimately determining whether coercive control exists will depend on the individual circumstances of the case and the nuances of the relationship between the two parties. 

Domestic violence is often extremely complex and hence instances of coercive control can be extremely wide-ranging between relationships. 

Coercive control as a form of gender-based violence 

Coercive control can occur to anyone in any relationship, though it more commonly occurs to women by male perpetrators. Approximately 75% of women who say they have experienced domestic abuse also say that they have experienced coercive control. 

Because coercive control creates a power imbalance in the relationship it is normally extremely difficult for the victim to leave the relationship. 

Living in perpetual fear and isolating the victim from their support network means that it can be very dangerous to leave the relationship and to go seek help. 

What to do if you are experiencing coercive control in your relationship

Coercive control is a serious form of domestic abuse and this is recognised by the law. There are many organisations that specialise in helping women and other individuals experiencing coercive control. 

Some examples include: 

  • Women’s Community Shelters
  • Lifeline
  • Kidsline
  • White Ribbon Australia
  • 1800respect
  • Centrelink Financial Assistance. 

An individual experiencing coercive control who does not have access to a private lawyer can also seek to contact Community Legal Centres as they can help by giving a victim free legal advice. 

The Community Legal Centres Australia website is a good resource that gives the public access to directories based on each state. These directories show a list of Community Legal Centres based on the suburb an individual lives in and also shows specialised legal centres. 

AVOs and coercive control

If an individual is experiencing domestic abuse, it is important that they consider applying for a protection order. 

In NSW, protection orders are called Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders (ADVOs). An ADVO can help protect a victim and their children and property so that they feel safe.

ADVOs contain certain conditions that the violent person (normally known as the defendant) is unable to break. Examples of conditions under ADVOs include: 

  • Physically harming or threatening to harm the protected individual
  • Contacting the protected individual
  • Physically harming or threatening to harm the protected individual’s children or property
  • Visiting places where the protected individual regularly attends (for example this could be a home, work, or school). 

An individual seeking to apply for an ADVO is recommended to seek legal advice and to contact police if they feel that they are at risk of significant harm. 

Australian Legislation that addresses Coercive Control

In Australia, coercive control is not explicitly criminalised under federal law. However, the concept of coercive control has been incorporated into family violence legislation in several states and territories. 

For example, in 2021, the state of Victoria introduced the Family Violence Protection Amendment (Coercive Control) Act, which recognizes coercive control as a form of family violence and provides avenues for victims to seek protection orders. 

Other states such as Queensland and New South Wales are also considering similar legislation. 

Additionally, the federal government has established a National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, which includes strategies to address coercive control. 

While there is still much work to be done in terms of addressing coercive control in Australia, these legislative developments are an important step forward in recognizing and responding to this insidious form of abuse.

NSW Legislation and Coercive Control

In New South Wales (NSW), coercive control is not currently recognized as a criminal offence. However, the NSW government is currently in the process of considering new legislation that would address coercive control as a form of family violence. 

In July 2021, the NSW Law Reform Commission released a report recommending that a specific offence of coercive control be introduced into the state’s criminal law, as well as amendments to the state’s family violence legislation to recognize and respond to coercive control. 

The report also recommends that training and education be provided to police and other frontline workers to better understand and respond to coercive control. 

The NSW government has yet to announce its response to the report, but the recommendations have been welcomed by domestic violence advocates who have long been calling for legal recognition of coercive control.

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