Domestic abuse: Coercion and Control. The hidden abuse in relationships

What is coercive control?

Lisa Aronson Fontes, psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, describes coercive control as a situation in which “one partner is usually socially isolated [and] afraid to anger her partner [because of] the punishment that might ensue”.

Coercive control ruins lives, resulting in people often losing their jobs, their self-esteem and freedom to make even the smallest choices regarding their lives, for example what they wear or who they associate with.

Coercive and controlling behaviour became a criminal offence in this country following the introduction of the Serious Crime Act 2015, which came into force 18 months ago.

As the law in relation to this area of domestic abuse is relatively new, the subtlety and destructive impact of coercive control is sometimes poorly understood by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), lawyers, magistrates and judges.

The results of a recent study of 358 domestic homicide (murder) reviews undertaken by Dr Jane Monkton-Smith of Gloucestershire University showed that control was observed in 92% of domestic killings, obsession in 94% and isolation from family and friends in 78%. These types of behaviour are all classic signs of coercive control.

The police are now bringing cases of coercive control to court and securing convictions. Ministry of Justice statistics show that, in 2016, 155 defendants were prosecuted for offences of coercive control, with 59 being found guilty and 28 being sent straight to prison.

In autumn 2016 West Yorkshire Police convinced the CPS to prosecute a case of “pure” coercive control and there were not any associated charges of physical assault. This was as a result of extreme psychological trauma experienced by a victim over a period of merely six weeks when she was in a relationship with the perpetrator.  The abuser was not only found guilty, but sentenced to a term of imprisonment of four years.

The forms of the abuse the victim was subjected to included her not being permitted to wash and forcing her to have non consensual sexual intercourse; taking her bank card and not putting any gas or electric on the meter. Although the relationship between the parties was extremely brief, the level of control the perpetrator subjected the victim to was so severe that the Police and CPS were eager to bring the charges and take the matter to court.

With regard to the family courts, there are concerns from domestic abuse campaigners, barristers and solicitors that the issue of coercive control is not being taken seriously enough.

It is relatively cheap and easy for perpetrators to commence proceedings in the civil or family courts even if there is a Criminal Restraining Order against them. This results in the victim having to attend Court and face their former partner and, by some perpetrators, is used just as a means of continuing the abuse by way of controlling behaviour.

Voice4Victims, a charity which campaigns against abuse of process in the justice system, is campaigning for any applications made to the family or civil courts by perpetrators subject to restraining orders to be considered by a District Judge.

If you or anyone you know is being or has been subjected to coercive control or any other form of domestic violence and abuse, or the perpetrator has made an application in the family courts and you have to attend, don’t delay, contact the Domestic Violence and Abuse Department (DVAD) at Emery Johnson Astills, either by phoning 0116 255 4855, or by emailing DVAD@johnsonastills.com.

A specially trained member of staff in the DVAD of Emery Johnson Astills will be able to provide advice as to what measures you can take to protect yourself and also whether you may be eligible for Legal Aid.