*Content warning: domestic and family violence*
Queensland Law Society recently responded to the Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce Discussion Paper 1 on options for legislating against coercive control.1
Coercive control is a pattern of behaviour or a course of conduct aimed at dominating and controlling another person and can involve both physical and non-physical tactics.2 Research suggests that coercive control is a predictive factor for serious physical violence in intimate relationships, including homicide.3
The way in which coercive control manifests is highly situational and contextual, and can vary significantly across different relationships.4 Nonetheless, coercive controllers use common techniques to abuse their victims, to varying degrees.
Coercive control commonly involves the following pattern:
- establishing trust and intimacy with the victim
- isolating the victim from external sources of support
- monopolising the victims’ perceptions by eliminating alternate viewpoints
- inducing debility and exhaustion in the victim, for example, by knowingly fabricating and manipulating situations to make the victim doubt their own perceptions
- enforcing trivial demands to develop a habit of compliance in the victim
- demonstrating omnipotence to make the victim feel as though escape is impossible
- alternating reward with punishment to reinforce control and further bond the victim to their abuser
- using threats to cultivate anxiety and despair, and to prevent the victim from leaving or seeking help
- degrading the victim with targeted taunts and insults.
It is the cumulative effect of these techniques that is devastating for victims, not just the isolated incidents.5
There is significant debate about whether criminalising coercive control would reduce domestic violence against women.6 As coercive control is a pattern of behaviour, it can be difficult to define, identify and address, particularly when certain behaviours are viewed in isolation.
Criminal law reforms alone will not address underlying cultural drivers of domestic and family violence, nor will they remove the barriers which prevent people experiencing violence from seeking and receiving assistance.
Importantly, the response to coercive control must not shift focus away from the critical non-legal ways of addressing coercive control – police and first responder training, education, cultural change and meaningful acknowledgement of, and policy responses to, the cultural and social factors that contribute to domestic and family violence.
Coercive control is deeply rooted in a historical imbalance of power. Queensland Law Society has strongly recommended that the taskforce consider measures aimed at driving change in the structures, norms and practices that lead to gender inequality and violence against women and children.
QLS supports school-based education directed at teaching young people respectful relationships. Early education programs challenge attitudes about violence and gender constructs known to contribute to violence and abuse, as well as supporting the development of pro-social behaviours that lead to equitable and respectful relationships.7
Importantly, any campaigns designed to educate people in Queensland should identify not only physical abuse, but also the various forms abuse can take, including emotional, sexual, financial, social, spiritual, verbal, psychological or technology-based abuse.
Specialist training for responders
Consideration should also be given to whether first responders and courts have the expertise and skill necessary to execute existing laws in a manner which properly protects a person experiencing abuse.
As the point of entry into the criminal justice system, police play a critical role in protecting individuals experiencing coercive control and domestic violence more broadly.8 Police have significant discretionary powers and the operational decisions individual officers make in responding to domestic violence can have life or death consequences.
Training should be designed to equip police with the skills to recognise the complex dynamics of domestic and family violence and the particular impacts and experiences of violence for First Nations women, women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, women with disability, older women and LGBTIQ+ people.
Similarly, all levels of the judiciary, legal practitioners and court staff should receive increased and ongoing training on how to recognise the complex dynamics of domestic and family violence, and specifically coercive control, survivor adaptability and the impacts and manifestations of trauma.
Other support providers such as counsellors and health service providers working with victims/survivors of domestic and family violence should also be properly equipped to sensitively identify and navigate domestic abuse in all its forms.
Perpetrator intervention programs
Perpetrator intervention programs recognise the importance of challenging and shifting abusive and violent behaviours and represent an opportunity for men who use violence to change. Perpetrator programs work to break down misogynistic views and a deeply held sense of entitlement perpetrators use to justify their abuse.
However, discussion around perpetrator interventions is often simplistic and there are a range of complexities and challenges involved in the delivery of perpetrator intervention and men’s behavioural change programs.
An order or direction for a perpetrator to attend a perpetrator program does not guarantee the safety of their victim. Currently, perpetrator programs offered in Queensland are inadequate and commonly range from 16 to 27 weeks. The models and approaches vary depending on whether they are held within the community or within a custodial environment.
There are also significant delays in accessing perpetrator or behaviour change programs, as well as a lack of variety in available programs. Many programs also fail to align with other services aimed at addressing issues which intersect with domestic and family violence, such as mental health, drug and alcohol addiction, unemployment, poverty and housing insecurity.
QLS recommended that the taskforce consider the structures and resources that will be necessary to improve availability and timely access to perpetrator intervention programs.
Consideration should be given to the capacity and capability of current systems to support effective models of perpetrator interventions.
QLS also considers ongoing evaluation and research into the efficacy and safety of perpetrator intervention programs is critical in ensuring such programs achieve their aims without compromising the safety of victims.
Queensland currently has both a civil and criminal response to domestic and family violence.
Civil domestic violence orders under the Domestic and Family Violence Protection Act 2012 (Qld) (the Act) are designed to offer accessible protection for victims. The civil system has a number of benefits. The standard of proof is lower and the strict rules of evidence do not apply.9
The definition of ‘domestic violence’ under the Act is also broader than under criminal statutes, which allows a broader range of behaviours to be captured, including those which constitute coercive control. Contravention of a domestic violence order is a criminal offence.
There are several advantages to using the civil protection order system. The civil protection order system is flexible and may be preferred by complainants who are reluctant to engage in the criminal law process and do not wish for their partner or former partner to be the subject of criminal charges, but want the violence to stop.
Under Queensland criminal law, various offences contemplate coercive and controlling behaviour, including stalking, torture, deprivation of liberty and wilful damage.
Many offences in the Criminal Code could be better utilised to more effectively prosecute conduct involving coercive control. There is also significant scope for existing laws, powers and protections to be implemented in a more effective and appropriate way.
Improving response systems, through education, training, specialised domestic violence sections within the police and embedding a culture of best practice is a critical aspect of protecting victims and keeping them safe.
It has been suggested that the creation of a specific coercive control offence provision may allow the justice system to better identify and respond to the harmful impacts of coercive control.10
It has also been suggested that there is insufficient evidence to establish that the creation of a specific offence would improve the safety of women and children and that the risks of creating such an offence may outweigh the benefit.
There is consensus that, whether or not a specific offence provision is legislated, it will not, of itself, guarantee improved safety of women and children and a range of strategies is required.
A new offence may play an important educative function for police, perpetrators and the public, and would highlight the seriousness of this behaviour. The police response to coercive control may also improve where it is clear in criminal legislation that coercive control constitutes offending behaviour. It would also provide a means to determine its prevalence within the community.
QLS highlighted the need for any new offence, if recommended, to be carefully and specifically defined to avoid a range of potential unintended consequences. It should also be preceded by considerable consultation with relevant stakeholders and comprehensive education for responders and the community more broadly.
Designing and implementing an effective response to coercive control is a complex and challenging task, involving a myriad of considerations and perspectives. Importantly, many of the measures which will be most effective in addressing coercive control sit outside the legal system.
The Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce is expected to report on coercive control next month and to continue the review of the experience of women across the criminal justice system into 2022.
Read the QLS submission to the taskforce in full.
Natalie De Campo and Kerryn Sampson are Queensland Law Society Senior Policy Solicitors.
If you, or someone you know, need help, please contact a relevant support service:
DVConnect is a 24-hour crisis support line for women affected by domestic and family violence.
Phone 1800 811 811 or dvconnect.org.
DVConnect Mensline is a crisis support, advice and referral service for men who are seeking support around their experiences or use of domestic and family violence. Phone 1800 600 636 from 9am to midnight, 7 days.
Mensline Australia is a 24-hour counselling service for men across a range of relationship and wellbeing issues.
Phone 1300 789 978 or mensline.org.au.
Kids Helpline is a 24-hour counselling service for young people between 5 and 25. Phone 1800 55 1800 or kidshelpline.com.au.
Suicide Call Back Service is a 24-hour crisis and counselling line for anyone who is feeling suicidal or worried about someone. Phone 1300 659 467 or suicidecallbackservice.org.au.
LawCare provides QLS members, their immediate family and their staff with confidential, personal and professional support. Phone 1800 177 743.
1 QLS acknowledges the diverse perspectives and views among QLS members on the issues raised in the discussion paper. The final QLS submission acknowledges those different perspectives.
2 ANROWS, Defining and responding to coercive control: Policy brief.
3 Hayley Boxall and Anthony Morgan, ‘Statistical Bulletin 30: Experiences of coercive control among Australian women(Australian Institute of Criminology, March 2021) 2.
4 Above, n4.
5 Jess Hill, See What You Made Me Do, 2019.
6 Home Office (UK), Review of the Controlling or Coercive Behaviour Offence (Research Report 122, March 2021).
7 In New South Wales, the Joint Select Committee on Coercive Control recommended in June 2021 that the NSW Government ensure that content about coercive and controlling behaviour is included in school programs about respectful relationships.
8 Report – Talking Together – relations between police and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Victoria. Office of police integrity.
9 Domestic and Family Violence Protection Act 2012 (Qld) s145(3).
10 Above, n6.