Identifying Coercive Control in the Courts

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The BBC reported today that new research from Manchester Metropolitan University shows a strong link between coercive control and murder. This echoes the research done by Professor Jane Monckton-Smith in her book In Control: Dangerous Relationships and How They End in Murder. 

It is probably no surprise, at least to feminists who follow such research closely, that abusers sometimes escalate to femicide. 

The question is what can be done about it – and why legal remedies are struggling to improve the figure of roughly 100 women a year murdered by an abusive partner or ex partner. 

Both the criminal and family courts have found it difficult to draw a bright line between behaviour that is unpleasant or intolerable and behaviour that is coercive and controlling. 

As  Peter Jackson LJ commented in Re L (Relocation: Second Appeal) [2017] EWCA Civ 2121 at paragraph 61:

“Few relationships lack instances of bad behaviour on the part of one or both parties at some time and it is a rare family case that does not contain complaints by one party against the other, and often complaints are made by both. Yet not all such behaviour will amount to ‘domestic abuse’, where ‘coercive behaviour’ is defined as behaviour that is ‘used to harm, punish, or frighten the victim…’ and ‘controlling behaviour’ as behaviour ‘designed to make a person subordinate…’ 

This was the approach echoed by Hayden J in F v M [2021] EWFC 4 at para 4:

“…In the Family Court, that expression [‘coercive and controlling behaviour’] is given no legal definition. In my judgement, it requires none. The term is unambiguous and needs no embellishment. Understanding the scope and ambit of the behaviour however, requires a recognition that ‘coercion’ will usually involve a pattern of acts encompassing, for example, assault, intimidation, humiliation and threats. ‘Controlling behaviour’ really involves a range of acts designed to render an individual subordinate and to corrode their sense of personal autonomy. Key to both behaviours is an appreciation of a ‘pattern’ or ‘a series of acts’, the impact of which must be assessed cumulatively and rarely in isolation.”

In the criminal sphere, a similar description is offered to prosecutors in guidance. 

There is of course a definition of the offence, provided s.76 Serious Crime Act 2015. The CPS guidance explains that a person will be guilty of the offence of coercive control in the following circumstances:

An offence is committed by A if:

  • A repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards another person, B, that is controlling or coercive; and
  • At time of the behaviour, A and B are personally connected; and
  • The behaviour has a serious effect on B; and
  • A knows or ought to know that the behaviour will have a serious effect on B.

A and B are ‘personally connected’ if:

  • they are in an intimate personal relationship; or
  • they live together and are either members of the same family; or
  • they live together and have previously been in an intimate personal relationship with each other.

There are two ways in which it can be proved that A’s behaviour has a ‘serious effect’ on B:

  • If it causes B to fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against them – s.76 (4)(a); or
  • If it causes B serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on their day-to-day activities – s.76 (4) (b).

The guidance goes on to say that “For the purposes of this offence, behaviour must be engaged in ‘repeatedly’ or ‘continuously’. Another, separate, element of the offence is that it must have a ‘serious effect’ on someone and one way of proving this is that it causes someone to fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against them. There is no specific requirement in the Act that the activity should be of the same nature. The prosecution should be able to show that there was intent to control or coerce someone.”

In the criminal court, the offence must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. Where the allegation is made in a family court, the pattern of behaviour must be proved on the balance of probabilities. 

It is readily apparent that it will be difficult in very many cases to draw a line between “bad behaviour” and “coercive control.” 

One complicating factor could well be the expectations of the judge or jury as to the victim’s response. Some women will respond to controlling or coercive behaviour by becoming meek, withdrawn, and afraid – the “freeze” response. Others will respond to violence with retaliatory violence or angry outbursts – the “fight” response. Perpetrators may provoke such a reaction and then accuse their victims of being the ones engaging in coercive control, a pattern known as DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender). The courts must be alive to unexpected reactions from victims: just because she has shouted at him to “fuck off” after months of belittlement or financial abuse doesn’t mean that “she gave as good as she got” and that her sense of autonomy must therefore be intact. 

There are no easy answers to how coercive control is identified, but early intervention would save lives. Education on identifying and preventing it, for prospective victims and prospective perpetrators, as well as those living in abusive homes, should begin in PHSE in adolescence rather than waiting for abuse to occur, when the post-mortem on events may tragically not be metaphorical.

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