Legislating against coercive control

In March 2021, the Queensland Government established the Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce (the taskforce) to examine two things:

  1. coercive control and review the need for a specific offence of commit domestic violence; and
  2. the experience of women across the criminal justice system.

This is the first part of a three-part blog series examining the taskforce, its legislative background and its objectives.

In the first part we will traverse the background of the taskforce and the meaning behind terms like ‘coercive control’.

Secondly, we will look at the particular options for reform, mapping the pros and cons of each model. As part of their proposed reforms, the taskforce highlighted Scotland’s Domestic Abuse Act as the ‘gold standard’.

Introduced in 2018, this legislative scheme created a specific offence of domestic abuse, which covered physical, psychological and emotional behaviours. In the first year of its operation, 246 people were prosecuted for the offence and 206 were convicted (an 84% conviction rate). How such a model could be implemented in Queensland will be explored in more depth in our next instalment.

In the third blog of this series, we will discuss the various recommendations made by the taskforce, when they eventually arrive at a determination. It is anticipated that a report mapping the various recommendations for a standalone offence of domestic violence will be provided in October 2021 and a report on other areas of women’s experiences in the criminal justice system is anticipated to be released by March 2022.

What is coercive control?

As stated, there are two specific objectives of the taskforce. One of these objectives is the examination of coercive control measures. However, it is evident that the term itself requires elucidation.

Since the 1970s, a great deal of research, policymaking and legal reform concerning domestic violence has focused on the compelling issue of physical violence in intimate relationships. However, it seems that traditionally, less attention, or at least less visible attention, has been given to non-physical aspects of domestic violence.

Over time this has begun to change, as legal representatives, social support services, and victims themselves have called on governments to recognise non-physical manifestations of domestic and family violence.

It is evident there is no single recognised definition of coercive control; however, it generally includes a pattern of behaviour designed to control another person within a domestic relationship. This often includes nonviolent behaviours such as:

  • gradual isolation from friends, family and support
  • degradation, humiliation and threats
  • gaslighting
  • monitoring of movements
  • control of technology and social media use
  • financial control
  • removing reproductive control
  • general micro-management (for example, of what one eats and wears or when they sleep and leave the house)
  • coercive control can also include preventing someone from attending English classes for those who may be culturally and linguistically diverse, the withholding of medication from those with disabilities, and threats of ‘outing’ against LGBTIQA+ victims.

The taskforce

The taskforce is headed by the former President of the Queensland Court of Appeal, the Honourable Margaret McMurdo AC, as well as various other senior law and law enforcement professionals within the Queensland community.

Guiding principles and considerations for the taskforce include “keeping victims safe and holding perpetrators to account” and adopting “a trauma-informed, and evidence-based approach that takes into consideration the lived experience of women who are involved in the criminal justice system”.

With such principles in mind, the taskforce will consider any submissions made to it as well as any other evidence before it makes its recommendations to the Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, Minister for Women and Minister for the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence.

On 27 May 2021 the taskforce released its first discussion paper, which outlined their goals and findings surrounding coercive control.

It highlighted a need to supplement the existing legal system, which is comprised only of ‘incident-based offences’ rather than offences that recognise the psychological damage of an extended pattern of abuse within a relationship.

Support for victims of coercive control was considered particularly relevant during the period of the COVID-19 pandemic, as victims were forced to co-habit with abusers during lockdown. Some domestic violence and family service providers reported an increase in demand for their services during this period.

Conclusion

A focus on legislating against coercive control has arisen from the view that the legal system fails to contextualise abuse within a relationship over time, and rather focuses on isolated incidents of purely physical violence.

It has also been recognised that coercive control behaviours within a relationship often escalate towards eventual acts of violence or homicide, and therefore, legislating against it is an important step towards preventing such violence from even occurring.

The new Queensland taskforce aims to tackle this issue through the criminal sphere, rather than the civil one. How it recommends to do this remains to be seen.

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One Response

  1. We all know women could not possibly coercively control their partner. Or at least, the language in this article–“Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce” and “Adopting “a trauma-informed, and evidence-based approach that takes into consideration the lived experience of women who are involved in the criminal justice system”, assumes as much.

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