Domestic Abuse: Coercive Control

Published 10 November 2020. By Anne Marie Kelly

When I first starting practicing Law in 1987 the only redress open to victims of domestic abuse was a Personal Protection Exclusion Order and the victim had to show evidence of either threats of violence or physical violence. The legislation did not encompass non-physical behaviours including threats, humiliation, monitoring, and isolation from family and friends which can be just as damaging as physical violence.

When the legislation changed to allow victims to apply for a Non-Molestation, Occupation and Exclusion Orders the criteria for abuse expanded to include psychological and emotional abuse. The victim did not have to necessarily demonstrate that they had been subjected to physical violence or the threats of physical violence.

The law will evolve yet again. On 31 March 2020 the Justice Minister, Naomi Long, introduced the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill 2020 to the Assembly. The Bill is designed to ensure that coercive and controlling behaviour is recognised as a form of domestic abuse in addition to physical abuse. The legislation will make domestic abuse in all its forms a criminal offence. It will also ensure that where a child of the relationship who is under 18 but witnesses or hears an incident of abusive behaviour, the perpetrator will receive a longer sentence.

In 2015, England and Wales became the first nations in the world to criminalise controlling behaviour within relationships making coercive control punishable by up to 5 years in prison. Coercive control is used to shift the power dynamic in a relationship. Laura Richards, Criminal Behavioural Analyst, states that coercive control is not about one-off incidents; it is a pattern, a war of attrition which wears a person down. It is hoped that by criminalising behaviours, which may have previously been viewed as simply unpleasant, these laws will transform how society views unacceptable power dynamics in relationships and how we fundamentally tackle abuse.

In a recent BBC Three documentary, “Is This Coercive Control?” a group of twenty people aged 18 to 30 were brought together for a social experiment. Over a period of two days, the group watched a drama about a couple in a relationship which ended in an accusation of coercive control. It covered jealousy, control, psychological and emotional manipulation. It also highlighted that this form of control is often misunderstood as a form of domestic abuse and seen in some way as less serious than physical abuse. There was a mixed reaction; some observers were instantly alert to the warning signs, but others were unsure how to place each person’s behaviour and whether it constituted coercive control.

This year has also led to a surge in domestic abuse. As a result of lockdown measures, many victims have been trapped at home with their abuser for lengthy periods of time. Indeed, the United Nations has described the worldwide increase in domestic abuse as a “shadow pandemic” alongside Covid-19.

The Family Law team at MKB Law provide advice on applications for Protection Orders in cases of domestic abuse of whatever nature i.e. physical, emotional and psychological which includes coercive control. We can support you in filing your statement of evidence and explaining the processes of the Court. Applications are currently conducted on the papers submitted. Where there is a need for further legal submissions those are conducted via Sightlink because of Covid-19 restrictions.

There are support groups throughout Northern Ireland for all victims both men and women. No one should suffer in silence.

This article is for general guidance only and should not be regarded as a substitute for professional legal advice.

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