What Is Coercive Control And How May This Affect Family Law Matters?

What Is Coercive Control And How May This Affect Family Law Matters?

In our own experience as family lawyers at Ramsden Lawyers, we often see family law matters (property settlements and parenting arrangements) intersect with domestic violence matters. Ramsden Lawyer’s Family Lawyer Katarina Kyle discusses domestic violence, the many forms in which it comes, and the growing recognition in the Australian community at large that domestic violence is not limited to physical violence but can also include coercive control. The March 2022 inquest into the death of Ms Hannah Clarke and her children in 2020 cast light on the various forms of coercive control that are a form of domestic violence.

What is Coercive Control?

Coercive control can be described as behaviour or a pattern of behaviour perpetrated against a person to create a climate of isolation, fear, intimidation and/or humiliation.

In a consultation report in which Judicial Officers were interviewed by Professor Heather Douglas and Hannah Ehler of the Melbourne University titled “Coercive Control and Judicial Education: A Consultation Report,” the Judicial Officers identified behaviours that were indicative of coercive control, as follows (in summary):

  • Conduct that belittles and humiliates (e.g. calling them worthless, ugly, fat, comments about her inability to manage without them) contributing to entrapment and inability to leave especially in the context of isolation from support networks;
  • Use of animals, including direct threats of violence to animals or threats to keep animals from victims/survivors;
  • Threats dressed as loving comments (e.g. ‘You can’t leave the house in that outfit’);
  • Limitations on liberty, movement and social interactions (including the removal of access to technology, preventing help-seeking);
  • Threats to commit suicide (i.e. The perpetrator threatens to commit suicide to distress the victim and control their actions);
  • Rigid rulemaking (in relation to homemaking, parenting, finances, and division of responsibilities);
  • Vengeful use of authorities – including threats to report and actual reporting falsely to police, the ATO and/or the child protection authorities (which one participant noted can result in the arrest and even unnecessary mental health hospitalisation of victim/survivors);
  • Disproportionate responses to perceived wrongs (e.g. if their partner is a bit long at the shops, so they bash them); and
  • Monitoring and surveillance of the victim, especially using technology.

In Queensland, the Domestic Violence and Family Protection (Combating Coercive Control) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2022 was introduced into parliament on 14 October 2022. The Bill seeks to amend various pieces of legislation, which will not be detailed for the purpose of this article. Concerning the Bill’s proposed amendments to the Domestic and Family Violence Protection Act 2012 (Qld) (“Act”), the following is noted in particular:

  • The Bill seeks for the Court to recognise and identify coercively controlling behaviour, and in doing so, for the Court to identify the person most in need of protection when there is a cross-application in domestic violence proceedings; and
  • The Bill seeks to expand the definition of domestic violence contained in section 8 of the Act to include “a pattern of behaviour” to the existing definition of domestic. This is behaviour that is physically or sexually abusive, psychologically or emotionally abusive, economically abusive, coercive, threatening or in any way dominates or controls the person or causes the person to fear for their wellbeing or safety or that of someone else.

Section 8 of the Act currently provides behaviour that is “coercive” to be domestic violence. However, the Bill seeks to expand this definition by stating that a “pattern of behaviour” can give rise to behaviour that is ‘coercive’ under the Act, which may not be obvious based on a single incident.

The Intersection of Domestic Violence with Family Law

When a person is a victim of their partner being domestically violent to them during the relationship, those behaviours typically do not stop when the parties have separated and are living separately. In family law matters, some common examples of a perpetrator displaying coercively controlling behaviours following separation are as follows: –

  1. The perpetrator seeks to delay financial matters on purpose so as to try and financially devastate the victim. This includes refusing to provide their financial disclosure or avoiding communications from the victim’s lawyer;
  2. The perpetrator using the children to communicate inappropriate things and/or adult issues to the victim; and
  3. The perpetrator vengefully uses authorities such as the police or child protection services to make baseless reports against the victim so as to cause distress to the victim; and
  4. The perpetrator withholds animals or items of property to distress the victim.

Ramsden Lawyers – how we can help in family law matters involving coercive control and domestic violence

One of the first things we seek to identify as family lawyers at Ramsden Lawyers is whether a client has been or is currently at risk of domestic violence being committed by their former or current partner to them and/or their children. Upon identifying this, we provide legal advice on how to proceed safely and tactically based on the client’s instructions. We also provide referrals for support networks in place for domestic violence victims.

At Ramsden Lawyers, our team of family lawyers can assist you in navigating how to progress your family law property and/or parenting matter in light of the above behaviours. It is our role as family lawyers to advise our clients whether their matter is suitable for mediation or, having regard to the above behaviours, whether urgent Court proceedings are more appropriate.

At Ramsden Lawyers, we offer a free 30-minute consultation with one of our family lawyers to have a confidential discussion about how we may assist you. Please contact us at 1300 749 709 to schedule a consultation or alternatively, please send us an email enquiry at info@ramsdenlaw.com.au.