NSW has submitted draft legislation to criminalise the abusive practice of coercive control. The state’s Attorney-General has released a version of legislation that would see perpetrators convicted for up to seven years.
It’s the latest in a national move toward protecting those subject to domestic and family violence, particularly in areas that might not be entirely apparent.
NSW made a commitment at the end of last year to enshrine into law the crime of coercive control after a 2020 parliamentary enquiry found that current legislation is not adequate to deal with the practice and that the murder of more than 29 women and children could have been prevented if they were.
The report made 23 recommendations for legal changes, including the introduction of the specific offence of coercive control which the NSW Government agreed to respond to in December of 2021.
However, the legal approach is not entirely clear cut and campaigners are cautioning that it has to be carefully enacted along with other supporting measures in order to address the problem.
The state’s Attorney-General, Mark Speakman, has said that his team are taking precautions to get this one right.
“It’s critical that we have consultation to ensure that the reforms only capture very serious incidents of abuse,” he said.
“They [should] avoid overreach and that they don’t unintentionally endanger the very people in our community that we’re seeking to help.
“Coercive control is insidious and sadly, it’s a significant red flag for intimate partner homicide.”
It’s no secret that Australia, like many other countries, has an issue with domestic and family violence. The practice, by nature, is often hard to identify, with early warning signs and red flags going unseen until the actions become extreme. Having the power and the knowledge to intervene early could be crucial in saving the lives of those who are affected.
What Is Coercive Control?
First and foremost, coercive control is an abusive practice whereby a perpetrator seeks to control any and all aspects of a victim’s life with threats of, or actual, violence, intimidation, and blackmail.
The behaviour can be carried out by either partner in a relationship, although women in heterosexual relationships are far more likely to be the victim of such abuse. Think of it as extreme bullying aimed at degrading a partner with the end result of destroying their self-worth and autonomy, making them entirely beholden to the abuser.
The NSW Government have defined it as: “a form of domestic abuse that involves patterns of behaviour which have the cumulative effect of denying victim-survivors their autonomy and independence.
“This abuse can include physical, sexual, psychological or financial abuse,” the NSW Government website reads.
Queensland legal firm Pullos has described the practice as “traumatising” and stated that it can include any of the following:
- isolating the victim from friends, family and other forms of support;
- surveillance by continuous texts and calls;
- manipulating the victim to create dependency;
- controlling finances;
- micro-managing day-to-day activities;
- threatening behaviour, humiliation, degradation and blackmail
- identity theft;
- stealing possessions; and
- depriving the victim of receiving care from practitioners.
Frequently, coercive control is a precursor to more aggravated forms of abuse and is typically seen in the lead-up to assault and murder.
What Does the Bill Say?
Officially the “Crimes Legislation Amendment (Coercive Control) Bill 2022” the law covers abusive behaviour toward current or former intimate partners.
The bill reads that a person can be convicted of the crime of coercive control if they engage in “a course of conduct against another person that consists of abusive behaviour” and “the adult and other person are or were intimate partners”.
A crime is committed if the person causes “physical or mental harm to the other person”, either intentionally or unintentionally, or that the victim fears that violence will be used against them or some other form of intimidation, such as embarrassment, is used so that is has a “serious adverse impact on the capacity of the other person to engage in some or all of the person’s ordinary day-to-day activities”.
The bill only covers current relationships and won’t be able to be used to prosecute actions done before the law comes into effect. It also does not cover normal, non-sexual relationships, or actions committed against family members or children.
While the bill is certainly a step in the right direction, women’s rights advocates have said that it needs to come with further funding for authorities and services to address domestic violence. Campaigners have noted that without proper training for those who enforce the new laws, there’s a risk that the practice will go unnoticed or undocumented.
The NSW Government is currently seeking public submission on the bill — you can add yours here — and will put the completed version before parliament before the end of the year.
Where Does the Rest of the Country Stand?
While all states and territories have domestic and family violence laws on their books, only Tasmania’s laws include the specific offence of coercive control.
Queensland is currently in the process of criminalising the practice, with similar legislation set to come into effect by the end of this year.
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.