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Coercive Control

Date posted: 21 December 2020

Alicia Love discusses coercive control; it’s meaning and the difficulties faced by the family court in identifying this form of domestic abuse, and what is being done to address this.


Coercive behaviour is described as ‘an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten the victim’.


The difficulty with this sort of abuse is that it takes hold by stealth and is also fundamentally entwined in female gender roles and infringes on social expectations that women do house work, how they are expected to dress, that the man manages money and how they socialise, all of which are potential harms but are not recognised in law. This sort of control is predominantly used to abuse women and it shifts the emphasis from calculative individual harm to a pattern of control that traps the victim.


This poses a problem within the Courts because historically domestic abuse has been understood by reference to individual isolated acts of physical or emotional abuse. Judges can often be dismissive of historical abuse or not recognise the subtleties involved in coercive control. The family court is not well equipped to deal with these issues. In particular Scott Schedules are at odds with providing an effective framework to address coercive control by asking for singular specific incidents and limiting the number allegations that can be included. That, when paired with the limited judicial training on these issues, leaves a lacuna in approach taken by Judges. This in turn can lead Judges to accept the opponent’s defence that allegations are fabricated or exaggerated and leaves the door open to the narrative of parental alienation.


What is being done to address this?


The Domestic Abuse Bill is waiting for its second reading in the House of Lords. The aim of the bill is to give a statutory definition to coercive control and ensure that there is a stronger focus on this kind of abuse, making clear that patterns of abuse are much more common and abuse does not always occur in isolated incidents. It will also aim to recognise that coercive control does not end with separation and that much control post separation takes the form of insidious economic abuse and abuse of child contact arrangements. The latter being important in family law as it may explain why a victim has allowed contact only despite there being welfare issues.


The hope is that this will lead Family Courts to becoming more trauma led and cause a shift away from the approach that the victim has to prove that they have suffered trauma but to a presumption that a person could have suffered trauma and that this may be an explanation for their behaviour.


How does this effect us as practitioners?


Due to how this type of abuse can effect clients their instructions often change and can be vague and non-specific, making our jobs difficult. Additional patience and time needs to be given to clients who have suffered coercive control and a holistic approach needs to be taken to understand the history of abuse our clients have suffered and how this affects their case. While changes are being made the courts are very slow to react and so we as practitioners need to be at the forefront in highlighting the interplay of coercive control within family proceedings.


Please click the link to find further information about the Domestic Abuse Bill


If you have a family law issue or you are involved in family law proceedings and require assistance, call Mavis on 020 8885 7986 for an appointment.