Coercive Control: What the Domestic Violence Practice Is That Queensland Is Outlawing

coercive control meaning australia laws

This article contains descriptions of domestic violence.

On Tuesday, Queensland announced an historic overhaul of its domestic and family violence laws to “better protect Queensland women from domestic and family violence and hold perpetrators to account”.

One of the headline changes was the raft of new laws that recognise, prevent, and punish coercive control. Under legislation set to be introduced before the end of next year, Coercive control will be recognised as a form of domestic and family violence in the state and punishable as a criminal offence.

This comes as part of a $363 million raft of measures that also includes an inquiry into police responses to domestic violence incidents, more support for women, a special strategy for Indigenous communities, and education programmes for male perpetrators to end the cycle of violence.

Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, Minister for Women and the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence Shannon Fentiman said the measures would improve police and not-for-profit capacities to deal with domestic violence.

“A key focus of the reforms will be to build understanding of DFV and coercive control across the agency to help police improve how they respond to these matters,” she said.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said that confronting the reality of domestic and family violence is the most important step in dealing with it.

“Not one of us can deal with this issue, it will take all of us,” she said.

So, with changing definitions of what domestic and family violence is, what exactly does coercive control look like, and where do the other states and territories stand on the issue?

What is Coercive Control?

Coercive control is considered a type of domestic abuse, but it’s not physical. At times, it can be hard to identify, and people may go for years without realising that they are in an abusive relationship. That being said, it can be insidious, stressful, and psychologically torturous.

While it can be perpetrated by either partner, UK statistics suggest that 60-80% of women seeking support for domestic violence have experienced coercive control. It is also widely thought of as the precursor to physical abuse which is why police in Queensland are keen to identify those in coercive relationships and stop the practice before it escalates.

Coercive control effectively means that an abuser is being heavily controlling of their partner and/or children. Generally, this is done through manipulation, intimidation, and threats of violence or embarrassment to get the other party to do the abuser’s bidding.

Examples of coercive control include things like cutting a partner off from support networks like friends and family, monitoring them at all times through texts and calls, bullying or belittling them to ruin their self-esteem, restricting their freedom and independence, controlling what they look like through clothing, diet, grooming, or exercise, limiting their access to finances, and gaslighting them so that they question their own sanity.

Typically, coercive control is expressed as extreme jealousy and insecurity, with a violent or threatening need to have absolute command over much or all of their partner’s life. The fear is often that the person will leave them if they are granted freedom and autonomy, so steps are taken to ensure that this can never happen. This can be a very slow process that starts fairly innocuously and builds over time to total dominance of someone’s life.

A recent review of the practice in NSW found that 77 out of 78 domestic violence perpetrators who killed their partners had used coercive control in their relationship beforehand.

What Are the Laws on Coercion?

Changing state and territory domestic violence laws to specifically target coercive control has been a topic of discussion in the country for many years.

Unfortunately, only Tasmania currently has legislation directly addressing coercive control, with those laws having been in place since 2004. With the changes coming in Queensland, that will make it two states out of nine states and territories in the country to do so.

NSW has, however, also committed to outlawing the practice, after an inquiry last year into domestic violence recommended the creation of standalone offences for the practice. The laws are set to be introduced in Parliament this year, with the intention that they will be in effect by the end 2023.

Most other state and territory governments are investigating adding coercion laws to their books, including the ACT, Western Australia, and the NT, however, no specific measures have been announced.

While it sounds like a great idea, the problem in practice is that prosecuting people for coercive control is difficult. A 2017 review of Tasmania’s coercive control laws found that perpetrators have “only rarely been prosecuted.”

That being said, similar laws to the ones in Tasmania exist in the UK, where police recorded some 24,800 cases of coercive control in 2019 alone. The vast majority of these cases led to convictions, however, police in the UK say that massive training and public education campaigns have been necessary to help both victims and prosecutors identify the practice.

There is also the major concern that coercive control laws might result in the over-criminalisation of marginalised groups including Indigenous people, those from a non-English speaking background, and those with mental health issues.

In addition, a royal commission in Victoria on the topic found that enforcing the current laws would be sufficient in targeting the behaviour and that new laws might not be effective by themselves.

Because of the complex nature of the practice and the need to strike the right balance here, reviews and consultations are having to take place up and down the country on the implementation or modification of laws to tackle coercive control. It’s vital work, and it can’t come soon enough, but it’s also important that we get this right when we do implement laws to protect all Australians.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 000.

If you or someone you know needs help with domestic family violence, please contact the 24-hour assault helpline 1800RESPECT on 1800 737732. You can also call BeyondBlue on 1300 224 636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14. 

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