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Coercive Control: The ‘invisible’ form of domestic violence

What is coercive control?

Coercive control is a form of domestic and family violence that is often unseen, due to its non-physical nature.

It includes behaviours designed to make another person subordinate or dependent on the controller, by various means such as limiting the person’s access to financial resources, and isolating the person socially and/or geographically. Ongoing tracking of someone’s location, persistent texting, and social media surveillance are also forms of this type of violence.[1]

Recently, the term ‘coercive control’ made headlines due to a series of early morning tweets published by Queensland Premier Anastasia Palaszczuk. It is notable however, that coercive control has been explored within various fields of psychology since the late 1970s.[2]

Is coercive control a crime anywhere else?

Legislation against coercive control has been in effect since 2015 in England and Wales.[3] Three years later the silent form of abuse was criminalised through the enactment of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018, which has become the ‘gold standard’[4] for the criminalisation of coercive control.

Tasmania is the only Australian jurisdiction that has enacted laws criminalising non-physical forms of domestic violence. The Family Violence Act 2004 (Tas) contains provisions making economic abuse,[5] and emotional abuse or intimidation[6] forms of family violence which each carry penalties of imprisonment of up to 2 years. In other states and territories, such behaviours are only offences if there is a breach of an existing Domestic Violence Order (DVO), Protection Order (PO), Restraining Order (RO) (or equivalent).

Coercive control laws are also under consideration in the Northern Territory, Victoria and New South Wales.

The draft legislation before the New South Wales parliament, largely guided by the Scottish example, sets out the offence as follows:

“A person must not engage in conduct that constitutes the coercive control of another person with whom the person has, or has had, a domestic relationship.

Maximum penalty—Imprisonment for 5 years or 50 penalty units, or both.”[7]

The Bill defines coercive control as:

“… conduct that has, or is reasonably likely to have, one or more of the following effects—

(a) making the other person dependent on, or subordinate to, the person,

(b) isolating the other person from friends, relatives or other sources of support,

(c) controlling, regulating or monitoring the other person’s day-to-day activities,

(d) depriving the other person of, or restricting the other person’s, freedom of action,

(e) depriving the other person of, or restricting the other person’s, access to support services, including the services of health practitioners and legal practitioners,

(f) frightening, humiliating, degrading or punishing the other person.”[8]

The NSW Bill also includes provisions that enforce a maximum penalty of imprisonment for 10 years if the offending occurs in circumstances of aggravation, such as where it is directed towards or occurs in the presence of a child.[9]

Will criminalisation of coercive control solve the problem?

A complex social issue, domestic and family violence cannot be resolved by legislation alone. It has been commented that policy makers address the need to strengthen civil remedies, and ensure service access delivery, along with criminalisation.[10]

In a study which reviewed 372 domestic violence murders in the UK, it was found that the majority of DV homicides occurred after a pattern of escalation which included patterns of coercive control.[11] As there were 1,208 offences of coercive behaviour in family relationships where a prosecution commenced in a Magistrate’s Court, the study concluded that the criminalisation of coercive control has had an impact on lowering domestic violence murders.[12] Of further note, it is concerning that 24,856 coercive control offences were recorded by police in England and Wales in the same year (year ending March 2020),[13] meaning that just under 4.86% of recorded offences were prosecuted.

How will police handle any new laws?

If we look to the experience of law enforcement authorities in the UK, we learn that it has been challenging for police to identify patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour due to the subtle nature of the offending. For instance, when is a behaviour an ordinary event in the course of daily life, and when is it the ‘deprivation of a person’s freedom of action’ designed to make the person subordinate or dependent on the controller?

Greater education and awareness of coercive control in the community may assist to decrease the frequency of its occurrence. Further, additional training for police in identifying and addressing cases of coercive control are hoped to assist in the reduction of this all too common domestic issue.

When will coercive control become a crime in Queensland?

As recently announced by Queensland Premier Palaszczuk, an independent taskforce will be set up to investigate the potential to make coercive control a crime under Queensland legislation. At this stage, the independent taskforce is due to report back to the government in October. It is hoped that a Bill will be presented to Parliament in early 2022.[14]

Summary of the situation

Coercive control is a non-physical, or invisible form of family and domestic violence. It includes behaviours designed to make another person subordinate to, or entirely dependent on the perpetrator. Digital methods such as social media surveillance are often used to regulate, monitor, and control a person’s day-to-day activities, as well as to frighten, intimidate, humiliate, degrade and/or punish the person.

Recently the Queensland Premier took to social media to announce it will set up an independent taskforce to investigate the potential for the criminalisation of coercive control in the State, against a backdrop of legislative interventions in England, Wales and Scotland.

If new coercive control offences come into effect in the various states and territories in Australia in which such legislation is presently being considered, policy makers will need to commit to strengthening the broader regulatory framework, such as service access delivery and specialist police training to ensure the laws can be effectively prosecuted.

Contact Us

If you or someone you care for has been affected by domestic or family violence, or if you have a broader family law issue for which you require advice and representation, please contact our office to speak to one of our experienced family law practitioners for professional legal advice regarding your specific circumstances.

We can be reached on 07 4637 6300 or you can contact us through our website.


[1] Harris, B. A., Woodlock, D., (2019), ‘Digital Coercive Control: Insights From Two Landmark Domestic Violence Studies’, The British Journal of Criminology, Volume 59, Issue 3, May 2019, Pages 530–550, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjc/azy052

[2] Straus, M. A., (1979), ‘Measuring intrafamily conflict and violence’, Journal of Marriage and the Family 41(1): 75–88; Walby S, Towers J., (2018) ‘Untangling the concept of coercive control: Theorizing domestic violent crime’, Criminology & Criminal Justice. 2018; 18(1):7-28. DOI:10.1177/1748895817743541

[3] Tolmie, J. R. (2018), ‘Coercive control: To criminalize or not to criminalize?’, Criminology & Criminal Justice, 18(1): 50-66. DOI:10.1177/1748895817746712

[4] Bartle, J. (2020), ‘Should it be a crime to exert ‘coercive control’ over a domestic partner?’ (14 October), Sydney Criminal Lawyers, accessed on 4 March 2021 at https://www.sydneycriminallawyers.com.au/blog/should-it-be-a-crime-to-exert-coercive-control-over-a-domestic-partner/

[5] Sections 7(b)(i) and 8 of the Family Violence Act 2004 (Tas)

[6] Sections 7(b)(ii) and 9 of the Family Violence Act 2004 (Tas)

[7] Schedule 1, section 14A(1) of the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Amendment (Coercive Control – Preethi’s Law) Bill 2020 (NSW)

[8] Schedule 1, section 14A(2) of the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Amendment (Coercive Control – Preethi’s Law) Bill 2020 (NSW)

[9] Schedule 1, section 14B(2)(a) of the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Amendment (Coercive Control – Preethi’s Law) Bill 2020 (NSW)

[10] Fitz-Gibbon, K., McCulloch, J., Walklate, S., (2017), ‘Australia should be cautious about introducing laws on coercive control to stem domestic violence’, The Conversation (27 November), accessed on 4 March 2021 at https://theconversation.com/australia-should-be-cautious-about-introducing-laws-on-coercive-control-to-stem-domestic-violence-87579

[11] Smith, J. M. (2017), ‘Intimate partner femicide: Using Foucauldian analysis to track an eight stage progression to homicide’, Violence Against Women. 2020; 26(11):1267-1285. DOI:10.1177/1077801219863876

[12] Office for National Statistics (2020), ‘Domestic abuse and the criminal justice system, England and Wales: November 2020’, accessed on 31 May 2021 at https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/domesticabuseandthecriminaljusticesystemenglandandwales/november2020#prosecution-and-conviction-outcomes

[13] Office for National Statistics (2020), ‘Domestic abuse and the criminal justice system, England and Wales: November 2020: Responses to and outcomes of domestic abuse cases in the criminal justice system’, accessed on 31 May 2021 at https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/domesticabuseandthecriminaljusticesystemenglandandwales/november2020

[14] Zillman, S. (2021), ‘Queensland sets up taskforce to investigate coercive control laws one year after Hannah Clarke’s murder’ (17 Feb), ABC News, accessed on 4 March 2021 at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-02-17/hannah-clarke-domestic-violence-laws-coercive-control-taskforce/13162226

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