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How to identify coercive and controlling behaviour in family law cases

Date posted: 7 July 2022

With the high profile case of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard having gripped the nation, our Baljit Bains provides an insightful summary of the case of F v M [2021] EWFC 4 which considers allegations of coercive and controlling behaviour.

 

This case came before Mr Justice Hayden and highlighted how difficult it is to evidence coercive control. It was only by scrutinising the whole history of the relationship in detail that the pattern of coercion is fully appreciated.

 

The case concerned similar circumstances of two separate families/relationships in which the father was the common denominator.

 

Mr Justice Hayden held that:

‘The consideration of both ‘cases’ together served to illuminate the sinister, domineering and, frequently, tyrannizing complexion of F’s behaviour, to a degree which would not have been fully appreciated had the cases been severed. It is the chilling repetition of identical behaviours, with two very different women of different age and background, which casts evidential light and does so in each individual case.’ (at 5)

 

In the first case, M, a vulnerable young woman was manipulated, coerced and controlled to a significant degree. The court heard evidence from M’s parents who provide their own account of the relationship and how there were early warning signs of controlling behaviours from F.

 

Mr Justice Hayden held in respect of the maternal grandmother’s evidence:

‘What was striking in her evidence and magnified in her daughter’s were the occasions when she genuinely struggled to disentangle what F had told her from that which she had experienced. Texts and messages were sometimes sent to her purporting to be from her daughter but manifestly from F. F was so confident in his own capacity to deceive others that he did not recognise that however good his English maybe it still bore the hallmarks of a second language rather than a native speaker… nonetheless, MGM had plainly not always recognized whether F or M was communicating with her and I sensed that, even now, the psychological confusion that created is something she finds difficult to unpick’ (at 32).

 

The facts of the first case also highlight how perpetrators of this type of abuse are able to manipulate authorities, in this case the police were manipulated into accepting that the perpetrator was in fact the victim. Mr Justice Hayden held that:

 

 ‘I consider that M was not only the victim of F’s controlling and manipulative behaviour, her parents were also cowed by him. He appeared to outwit them at every turn and to be able to convince others, including to some extent the police that it was he who was the victim. M’s parents had plainly begun to feel entirely powerless.’ (at 30).

 

This case shows that a skilled and forensic approach needs to be applied to be able to identity who the real victim is. The judge comments:

 

‘As will already be obvious, a great deal of evidence has now been gathered in this case. The nature of the evidence and the breadth of it has presented a considerable challenge to the advocates. It has not been easy to marshal. What is striking, however, is the degree to which the allegations in this case mirror the paradigmatic behaviours identified in the guidance above.

M simply lacks the guile, the experience or the maturity of mind to have been able, so completely, to fabricate such a compelling and cohesive picture. Moreover, it is supported and strengthened by the wider evidence, particularly of M’s parents, friends, university acquaintances, tutors and the university Chaplin. In this this case I am required to make findings on the balance of probability I have no difficulty in concluding that between December 2013 and September 2017 M was subjected to a brutalising, dehumanizing regime, by F which subjugated her and was profoundly corrosive of her autonomy’. (at 64).

 

‘The overall approach to the assessment of evidence here is the same as in any other case. What requires to be factored into the process is the recognition of the insidious scope and manner of this particular type of domestic abuse. The emphasis in Section 17 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, is on ‘repetition’ and ‘continuous engagement’ in patterns of behaviour which are controlling and coercive. Behaviour, it seems to me requires, logically and by definition more than a single act. The wording of FPD 2010 PD12J is potentially misleading in so far as it appears to contemplate establishing behaviour by reference to ‘an act or a pattern of acts’.  

Key to assessing abuse in the contest of coercive control is recognising that the significance of individual acts may only be understood properly within the context of wider behaviour. I emphasise it is the behaviour and not simply the repetition of individual acts which reveals the real objectives of the perpetrator and thus the true nature of the abuse’. (at 109)

 

When presented with cases of alleged abuse the alleged victim is required to put together a schedule setting out the alleged abuse which the alleged perpetrator responds to.  This is called a Scott Schedule.  In this case the Judge commented on the effectiveness of Scott Schedules when dealing with coercive control:

 

‘What I have referred to as a particularly insidious type of abuse, may not easily be captured by the more formulaic discipline of a Scott Schedule. As I have commented above, what is really being examined in domestic abuse of this kind is a pattern of behaviour, possibly over many years, in which particular incidents may carry significance which may sometimes be obvious to an observer but to which the victim has become injured.’

‘An intense focus on particular and specified incidents may be a counter productive exercise. It carries the risk of obscuring the serious nature of the harm perpetrated in a pattern of behaviour. … I consider Scott Schedules to have such severe limitations in this particular sphere as to render them both ineffective and frequently unsuitable. I would go further, and question whether they are a useful tool more generally in factual disputes in Family Law cases. The subtleties of human behaviour are not easily receptive to the confinement and constraint of a Schedule…. Whether a Scott Schedule is appropriate will be a matter for the judge and the advocates in each case unless of course, the Court of Appeal signals a change of approach’.

 

This case highlights the importance of information gathering and taking a full history of the relationship to be able to forensically consider the small behaviours and patterns which could build up a picture of coercive control.  It is not a single act of abuse which is easily identifiable.

 

If you need help with a case such as this, please contact Mavis on 020 8885 7986 for an appointment with a member of the family team.