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Could The Government Criminalise “Controlling” Behaviour?

When we look back into the history of the criminal justice system, law enforcement agencies worldwide have measured the severity of domestic and family violence in terms of physical injury or violence inflicted on a victim. This has led to problems in identifying more subtle cases of abuse that involve manipulation, controlling or coercive behaviours and psychological abuse which unfortunately seems to often fly under the radar. In order to broaden the spectrum of abuse that is recognised by law, countries such as the United Kingdom have now criminalised coercive control, also known as “controlling behaviour”. In 2015, England and Wales marked history by becoming the first countries to criminalise controlling behaviour, making it a crime that is punishable by up to five years in jail.

What Is Controlling Behaviour?

In order to better understand what the blanket term of controlling behaviour refers to, we have to look at situations in which coercive behaviour might be identified. Some of these situations include perpetrators instilling fear in their victims, showing signs of threatening behaviour and or intimidating someone as a method of controlling their behaviour and actions. In many cases, coercive control is not always physical but pervades a victim’s daily life for a prolonged period of time. Victims may end up isolated from loved ones as well as losing their independence and access to money that is necessary to survive. In line with current laws, victims of domestic abuse who showcase physical injuries, bruises or lesions are able to apply for intervention orders in order to protect themselves from their abuser. Unfortunately, it is much more difficult for a victim to secure an intervention order when the abuse they are experiencing cannot be seen by the naked eye.

Will Australia Criminalise Controlling Behaviour?

A question that is often asked is if Australia is going to follow the example of the UK and criminals' coercive behaviour. The New South Wales Labor opposition proposed a bill in 2020 to criminalise coercive control, with a ten year maximum penalty. This act aims to amend the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 to create an offence of engaging in conduct that constitutes coercive control in a domestic relationship. This follows increased advocacy after the gruesome and merciless killing of Hannah Clark and her three children and the murder of Preethi Reddy. However, even with the proposed bill, significant structural and systemic issues that must be addressed in order for coercive control legislation to be both effective and equitable. Due to this, some domestic and family violence experts are urging caution. Unfortunately, the over-policing and racial profiling of marginalised communities may cause confusion for law enforcement, especially when victims or perpetrators do not speak English. In order for the criminalisation of controlling behaviour to be effective, further police training will be required to better prepare law enforcement for the rollout of such an offence. The family law system will also have to ensure that a system is set up to support and protect victims of coercive control.

In A Nutshell

In a nutshell, it seems that Australia is well on its way to criminalising controlling behaviour, but the full effects of the proposed bill are not expected to be seen or acted upon in the near future. A combination of extensive education for police and sector partners who respond to family and domestic violence is necessary in order to ensure that victims are supported in the best way possible. If you need any advice on a family law matter, do not hesitate to reach out to one of the team members at Oxford Partners today.