As family lawyers, we are hearing the terms ‘coercive’ and ‘controlling’ now more than ever. The difficulty with coercive controlling behaviour is that it can have a devastating impact on the victim but can be really quite difficult to prove.

Coercive control is a criminal offence and this has been a welcomed change. Section 76 Serious Crime Act 2015 created the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship but did not define the behaviour in any context.

What is coercive control?

Coercive control is when a person with whom you are personally connected, repeatedly behaves in a way which makes you feel controlled, dependent, isolated or scared.

The following types of behaviour are common examples of coercive control:

  • Isolating you from your friends and family
  • Controlling how much money you have and how you spend it
  • Monitoring your activities and your movements
  • Repeatedly putting you down, calling you names or telling you that you are worthless
  • Threatening to harm or kill you or your child
  • Threatening to publish information about you or to report you to the police or the authorities
  • Damaging your property or household goods
  • Forcing you to take part in criminal activity or child abuse

Some of the behaviours in this list can be other offences as well as coercive control, so your abuser can be arrested for more than one offence for the same behaviour.

Your abuser will be guilty of the offence of coercive control if

  1. They are personally connected to you, and
  2. Their behaviour has had a serious effect on you, and
  3.  Your abuser knew or ought to have known that their behaviour would have a serious effect on you.

In criminal law, serious effect is defined as either causing fear (on at least two occasions) that violence will be used, or causing serious alarm/distress which has a substantial adverse effect on the victim’s usual day to day activities. The offence has a maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment.

In family law, we have seen the family Court has struggled to grapple with allegations of coercive control due to the hard task for the victim to provide evidence in support of the coercive controlling behaviours and to prove the serious effect. It can become a very much he said/she said.  The coercive/controlling behaviour alleged as single allegations own could be seen as a ‘one off’ or perhaps trivial, but that is where the need to look at the impact and pattern of behaviours comes into play.   

In a recent case of M v F, the Judge in that case highlights that there is no legal definition in family law of “coercive and controlling behaviour” and there is very little case law which sheds any light on its definition.

FPR sets out some definitions which were summarised in M v F this year and can be summarised as follows:-

Coercive behaviour:

A pattern of acts;
Such acts will be characterised by assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation but are not confined to this and may appear in other guises;
The objective of these acts is to harm, punish or frighten the victim.

Controlling behaviour:

A pattern of acts;
Designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent;
Achieved by isolating them from support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of their means of independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday activities.

The 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.”

What is clear from all of the recent developments and literature is that this form of abuse is continuous.

On its own, each individual act may not cross the threshold, but when taken as a whole, it shows a pattern of behaviour which is coercive and controlling in nature.

It is often the perpetrator that portrays themselves as the victim to the professionals involved and will often gaslight the real victim.

A perpetrator’s ability to convince and persuade is of course what makes them so effective in carrying out this form of abuse. The Judge in F v M highlights the importance for professionals involved to look out and be alive to clues, hints, indicators and triggers in what people report. As a family lawyer, it is clear that more knowledge and training in understanding coercive control is needed across the section and the case of M v F has been a really positive step forward in recognising the need for change for the victims.

Help and support

If you are in a relationship involving coercive and controlling behaviours – help and support are available:

If you feel that you, or someone else, is in danger please always call 999. If you can’t speak try to make a noise, like coughing, and then tap ‘55’ on the keypad. The police will know you need help, and will ask you to follow their instructions.

If you are looking to speak with a family lawyer concerning your matter, contact us to speak with one of our specialists.

T: 029 2034 2233

Author: Rebecca Knight

Published: 10/06/21