NSW Set to Criminalise Coercive Control

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Controlling Relationship

The New South Wales Government will soon begin drafting legislation aimed at criminalising coercive control. 

The new laws will create a standalone criminal offence for coercive control, in an attempt to deter such conduct and make it clear that such abuse is not acceptable in our society.

Parliamentary inquiry

The decision comes after a parliamentary inquiry which tested the calls to make coercive control a crime. 

The inquiry made 17 recommendations to the NSW state government, including that education and training initiatives be rolled out across government organisations and the wider community so that everyone understands what coercive control is. 

The inquiry has been underway for most of this year, and has heard evidence from victim-survivors, frontline domestic and family violence service workers as well as representatives from the criminal justice system.

What is coercive control? 

Coercive control is often the precursor to more violent and abusive behaviour within these relationships. 

In New South Wales, the law already recognises that domestic abuse extends beyond physical violence and can involve patterns of abuse, but the inquiry showed there are still gaps and more can be done to protect victims. The government believes more can be done.

Coercive control is a pattern of controlling behaviour, which can be physical, sexual, psychological, emotional or financial. 

It includes such activities as monitoring a person’s movements and activities, stalking, denying a person their own freedom, restricting access to transport, money, phone or internet, or manipulative behaviour which creates dependency, excessive checking up on a partner or bullying, threatening-type behaviour, isolating a partner from family or friends or caregivers. 

Some of these behaviours can be very subtle so it is unclear how the laws will deal with specific forms of coercive control. NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman and Minister for Prevention of Domestic and Sexual Violence has acknowledged that the new laws will need to be drafted with a significant amount of consultation and will take some time to get right considering that criminal law is typically incident-based, rather than behaviour based.  

The NSW government aims to introduce a bill to Parliament in the second half of next year, with laws potentially enacted by the end of 2023. 

Those who work at the front line of domestic and family violence services say that it’s a major step forward in helping victims to take appropriate steps to protect themselves from a controlling and abusive partner.  

They also believe that passing laws to criminalise such behaviour will create much broader social awareness of coercive control, particularly to educate victims who may already be suffering coercive control and don’t realise it. 

Coercive control laws in Australia and around the world 

Tasmania has had specific laws against economic and emotional abuse in relationships since 2004. 

The Queensland government committed to legislate against coercive control last year, after the death of Hannah Clarke and her children, but those laws are yet to pass.

In February 2020, Hannah and her three young children Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey, were killed when Hannah’s estranged husband Rowan Baxter doused them in petrol and set them alight inside their car in Brisbane. The children died at the scene and Hannah died later in hospital. from her injuries. Mr Baxter also died shortly after from self-inflicted wounds. 

Ms Clarke’s family say she was the victim of sexual and emotional abuse for years before she was killed. An Inquest into the family’s deaths is scheduled for early next year.

Similar coercive control laws have been passed in England and Wales in 2015, and Scotland in 2019. In these jurisdictions laws were passed at the same time as intensive training was provided to front line emergency services workers, in particular police, to help them better recognise coercive control.

Laws are only part of the solution 

During the Covid pandemic lockdowns, domestic violence has been on the rise across Australia  and the rest of the world. 

Domestic violence is an incredibly complex issue that won’t be solved by legislation alone or even funding for support services. 

It requires a much broader look at all the social factors which not only contribute to domestic and family violence, but also the factors which underpin the reasons why many women are not financially independent including the gender pay gap and the years many women spend out of the workforce, raising children.  

A community conversation was started here in Australia this year by a number of women who have had the courage to speak out about abuse they’ve suffered, at work, at home, as children, or as adults.  We mustn’t let this conversation end. Momentum is building for change, and most Australians definitely want it. 

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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