Criminalisation of coercive control

This is a hot topic at present and rightly so. There needs to be and should be significant community discussion and education to do the subject justice.

Is coercive control a form of domestic violence or abuse and should it be criminalised?

The overwhelming answer is Yes!

It is for that reason that the NSW Government is looking to join the only other state in Australia, namely, Tasmania, to criminalise coercive control. The NSW Law Society has this week endorsed the Berejiklian Government in calling for its criminalisation.

What is Coercive Control?

Coercive control is a type of domestic violence that manifests in psychological abuse via a pattern of acts: threats, manipulation, surveillance, isolation from friends and family, restricting access to finances and rigid rules with harsh consequences are common examples. It is a crime in some countries including the UK, France, and Ireland. 

A long-time victim of coercive control, Belinda, said this:

It is the starting point of violence. It is horrendous to experience and if we put perpetrators away before it escalates, we are likely to save more lives.”

An examination of recent domestic violence deaths will reveal that before being killed at the hands of their current or former partners, most of NSW’s recent domestic violence murder victims suffered through severe episodes of psychological and emotional abuse.

Examples of coercive control include cutting off access to money, installing surveillance devices in the home or on a phone, isolating from family and friends, threatening to withdraw support for a visa or to kill a pet – can destroy a woman who will never experience a physical assault. But many do not recognise themselves as victims.

The NSW Domestic Violence Death Review Team’s most recent report, investigating murders between 2017 and 2019, found 77 of the 78 perpetrators used coercive control on their partner before killing them. This follows earlier research from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research in 2016 that found women who experienced emotional abuse were 20 times more likely to subsequently suffer from physical violence.

The murder of Brisbane woman Hannah Clarke and her children in February 2020 by her ex-husband, following years of control and psychological abuse, catapulted the issue to national attention with calls for urgent law reform.

In February 2020, Brisbane woman Hannah Clarke and her three children were murdered by her ex-husband, the children’s father, in a sickening crime that followed years of psychological control. Hannah’s family told media they had not seen the warning signs of abuse “for a long time” and that Hannah herself had questioned whether the relationship was abusive because she had not been physically assaulted.

“Not all domestic abuse is physical,” Hannah’s brother Nathaniel told Channel Nine.

Years before Hannah’s case horrified the nation, the 2011 murder of Lisa Harnum, thrown from a high-rise balcony in Sydney’s CBD by her fiancé Simon Gittany, was one of the first high-profile cases of domestic abuse that had not been preceded by physical assaults, but rather around-the-clock surveillance and control on her movements, employment, outfits and choice of friends.


Lawmakers must be careful to draw a line between criminal behaviour and a relationship that may be dysfunctional, but not necessarily coercive.

There is also a risk of criminalising people with alcohol, drug issues, mental health issues – the vulnerable and disadvantaged who may not fit into the norms of relationships held by others. The offence needs to capture the persistent nature of the offending, intentionally and persistently … specific intent is a very important safeguard against capturing those who may otherwise be innocently caught up in well intended legislation.

So, subject to these minor qualifications, I’m all for it – let’s get it done!

If you or someone you know needs advice surrounding the proposed criminalisation of coercive control please contact one of our criminal lawyers for a free, no obligation consultation or call 4324 5688

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