Lauren Spence Family Lawyer Sydney

Lauren Spence

Lauren is a passionate family lawyer who genuinely appreciates the emotional difficulty that comes with divorce and separation. Since her admission as a solicitor of the Supreme Court of NSW,…
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Changes to Coercive Control Laws

If you are in immediate danger – call 000.

In late 2022, the New South Wales Government’s Bill, the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Coercive Control) Bill 2022, was passed by parliament.

The passing of this bill means that New South Wales is the first Australian state to criminalise coercive control. The new legislation makes it an offence for a current or former intimate partner to carry out repeated abusive behaviours with the intention of controlling or coercing the victim.

In this piece, we’re going to discuss coercive control, including what it is, how to recognise it and how to get help, as well as the new legislation in NSW.

Table of Contents:

What is coercive control?

Coercive control is a pattern of behaviour used by an individual to dominate and control another person in a relationship. These behaviours are forms of abuse that can be physical in nature but are also often psychological and even sexual too.

It involves the use of tactics such as intimidation, isolation, manipulative behaviours, and threats to control the thoughts, actions, and feelings of the victim – the overall intention is to lead the victim to lose their independence and autonomy.

Coercive control is a form of domestic violence and can be difficult to recognise because it doesn’t always involve physical abuse or violence. Instead, it can manifest in a variety of ways, such as controlling access to money or resources (financial abuse), dictating what the victim wears, who they see or talk to, and monitoring their every move (controlling behaviour).

For many victims of coercive control abuse, as they may not be experiencing physical violence, they do not realise that they are in fact victims of violent behaviours. This is why it’s extremely important to understand what coercive control is.

It can lead to long-lasting trauma and have a serious impact on the mental and emotional well-being of the victim.

Coercive control is also commonly referred to as “intimate terrorism”.

cartoon image of a person isolated after coercive control.

Why is coercive control a problem?

In addition to the fact that coercive control is a form of domestic abuse, it has also been proven to be a precursor to very serious domestic violence including injuries and homicide.

According to a NSW Coroner’s Court review into domestic violence deaths, it was found that coercive control was present in 99% of the relationships prior to the domestic homicide. The prevalence of coercive control in domestic violence-related deaths shows that coercive control shouldn’t be considered a warning that violence may occur in the future, but rather, that coercive and controlling behaviour is a form of violence.

How common is coercive control?

Coercive control and other forms of abuse, including emotional and mental abuse, are extremely common. According to an Australian Bureau of Statistics review – Domestic Violence: Experiences of Partner Emotional Abuse, which was based on statistics gathered in a 2016 Personal Safety Survey, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men have experienced partner emotional abuse since the age of 15.

In this context, partner emotional abuse refers to when a person is subjected to certain behaviours or actions that are aimed at preventing or controlling their behaviour, causing them emotional harm or fear. The behaviours are characterised by the intent to manipulate, control, isolate or intimidate the person they are aimed at and are repeated behaviours.

According to the article, people are twice as likely to experience partner emotional abuse as an adult if they witnessed or experienced domestic and family violence or abuse as a child. Over half of the women and a quarter of the men who experienced partner emotional abuse as an adult have also experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a partner.

cartoon image of new coercive control law legislation document.

What are the new coercive control laws?

The new coercive control legislation – the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Coercive Control) Act 2022 (NSW) – will amend the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) to criminalise coercive control in New South Wales.

In the Crimes Act (the Act), coercive control will be a criminal offence in section 54DAbusive behaviour towards current or former intimate partners. An adult commits an offence if they:

  • engage in a course of abusive conduct against another person; and
  • that the behaviour is against a person that is a current or former intimate partner (the law is not able to be applied retroactively); and
  • the person conducting the abuse intends to control or coerce the other person; and
  • a reasonable person would consider the conduct would likely cause fear that the violence will be used against the other person or another person or that there would be a serious adverse impact on the ability of the other person to engage in their ordinary day-to-day activities.

In the Act, abusive behaviour is defined as behaviour that consists of or involves:

  • violence;
  • threats against or intimidation of a person;
  • coercion or control of the person;
  • behaviour that causes harm to a child if a person fails to comply with demands made of the person;
  • behaviour that causes harm to the person against whom the behaviour is directed, or another adult, if the person fails to comply with demands made of the person;
  • behaviour that is economically or financially abusive, such as withholding financial support;
  • behaviour that shames, degrades or humiliates;
  • behaviour that directly or indirectly harasses a person, or monitors or tracks a person’s activities, communications or movements, whether by physically following the person, using technology or in another way;
  • behaviour that causes damage to or destruction of property;
  • behaviour that prevents the person from making or keeping connections with the person’s family, friends or culture, participating in cultural or spiritual ceremonies or practice, or expressing the person’s cultural identity;
  • behaviour that causes injury or death to an animal, or otherwise makes use of an animal to threaten a person;
  • behaviour that deprives a person of liberty, restricts a person’s liberty or otherwise unreasonably controls or regulates a person’s day-to-day activities.

Amendments will also be made to other legislation, including the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 (CDPVA), Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999 and the Criminal Procedure Act 1986.

Criminalising coercive control in this manner is momentous for Australia, it is the first time that coercive control will be a standalone offence. Currently, in other states, like Victoria and Queensland, this type of behaviour can provide grounds for protective orders but is not a standalone offence.

How is coercive control proven under the new laws?

In order for someone to be punished under the new coercive control law it will need to be proven that the alleged offender had the intention to cause the victim physical or mental harm through their behaviour, or that they were reckless as to whether their behaviour would cause physical or mental harm.

There would also need to be proof of repeated misbehaviour and that the misbehaviour had an impact on the victim’s ability to act freely.

There has been criticism of whether the threshold of proving the intention of the intimate partner’s behaviour to cause harm is too high to meet, however, Attorney General Mark Speakman has indicated that this could change over time and that it is important to address coercive control sooner rather than later. He stated that “we could have kept consulting for years and years and years chasing the perfect but let’s start today with something that is a massive change already in NSW and build on that years in to come.”

What are the penalties for coercive control offences?

The maximum penalty if found guilty of a coercive control offence is imprisonment for up to 7 years.

When will the new coercive control laws come into effect?

The new legislation will be in force from February 1st, 2024. The aim is to allow time for training, resourcing, education and raising community awareness of the new coercive control legislation.

What are some examples of coercive controlling behaviours?

Coercive controlling behaviour and tactics can take many forms, here are some examples of behaviour that are considered to be coercive control:

  • Isolating the victim from friends and family, and preventing them from communicating with others.
  • Monitoring the victim’s movements, activities, and communications, such as phone calls, emails, and text messages.
  • Using threats or intimidation to control the victim’s behaviour, such as threatening to harm the victim, their children, or their pets.
  • Depriving the victim of basic needs, such as food, water, or sleep, or restricting their access to medical care or medication.
  • Controlling the victim’s finances, such as preventing them from accessing money, taking control of their bank accounts, or preventing them from working.
  • Using emotional abuse, such as humiliation, insults, and name-calling, to control the victim’s behaviour.
  • Monitoring the victim’s social media accounts or email accounts without their knowledge or consent.
  • Destroying the victim’s personal property or possessions, such as breaking or throwing away their phone or other belongings.
  • Forcing the victim to engage in sexual acts against their will, or using sex as a means of control or coercion.
  • Using physical violence or threats of violence to control the victim’s behaviour, such as hitting, slapping, or pushing them.
cartoon image of couple arguing.

How do I recognise the signs of coercive control?

As we mentioned above, coercive control can involve a wide variety of tactics and actions. If you notice any of the following, you may be experiencing coercive control:

  • Isolation from friends and family. The aim of the perpetrator is to remove your external support system, making it more difficult for you to leave and thus making you more dependent on them.
  • Monitoring you. This could be through excessive communication with you or by using cameras and recording devices. The effect of this can be that you no longer perform many of the activities you may have done previously, and can make you feel like you have no personal space.
  • Swearing and verbal abuse. This could include criticising you or calling you names, essentially to make you feel as though you’re not as important as them.
  • Threatening you. These threats could be about you and your physical safety or could be threats against children, friends, family and even pets. The aim is to control your behaviour by making you fear potential physical harm.
  • Gaslighting. This type of behaviour can make you feel worthless as they treat you as if you’re always wrong and can make you question your sanity.
  • Sexual control. The perpetrator may be forcing you to engage in sexual acts or not allowing you to use birth control.
  • Jealous accusations. The abuser may make you feel guilty about the amount of time you spend with other people.
  • Financial control. The abuser may constrain the finances of their victim by not allowing them access to any money or controlling the amount of money that they have access to.

If you want to learn about these signs of coercive control, you can read them in more detail here.

How to get help

If you’re in a situation where your life is in danger or you need immediate help, call 000 immediately.

If you need help but you’re not in immediate danger, consider contacting your local police station, if possible, as they can help you apply for protective orders.

There are a number of support services including helplines that have been designed the help people who have or are experiencing domestic violence, including coercive control. These are:

How Unified Lawyers can help?

At Unified Lawyers, we’re experienced domestic violence lawyers who can guide you through your legal options. We’ve helped many people leave abusive relationships, as well as helped them move forward with their lives. Understanding your legal options is important and we’re here to help you today. We have an experienced family law team in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne and can help people Australia-wide. Call us today on 1300 667 461 or book a free consultation by using the button below.

Lauren Spence Family Lawyer Sydney

Lauren Spence

Lauren is a passionate family lawyer who genuinely appreciates the emotional difficulty that comes with divorce and separation. Since her admission as a solicitor of the Supreme Court of NSW, Lauren has practiced almost exclusively in the area of divorce and family law.

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