By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim
Coercive control is a form of domestic abuse perpetrated by one partner against another. It can involve a range of tactics – intimidation, isolation, humiliation – which work to “dominate and control” the partner, explains the coalition behind the Criminalise Coercive Control campaign.
“It is a strong precursor to serious physical assault and too often, leads to domestic homicide,” the coalition adds.
The 2017-19 NSW Domestic Violence Death Review undertook an in-depth examination of 112 intimate partner homicides between March 2008 and June 2016. And it found that in 111 cases the abuser had used “coercive and controlling behaviours” upon their victims, prior to killing them.
Research from the UK found that coercive control is the best indicator that there’s a risk of domestic homicide. And while the crime of coercive control has been enacted in Britain, the call for such an offence to be created in NSW, and indeed, other Australian jurisdictions, continues.
Launched on Monday 12 October 2020, the Criminalise Coercive Control campaign marks an escalation in the push to see such laws passed nationwide.
In this state, the campaign comes on the back of a Labor bill introduced late last month that proposes such laws.
And in response to this latest shove, NSW attorney general Mark Speakman announced on the following day, 13 October, that the Berejiklian government is establishing a parliamentary committee to inquire into the enactment of such laws in this state.
Towards a new offence
The state’s chief lawmaker explained in a statement on Tuesday that the “horrific rate” of domestic murders in this country “remains stubbornly consistent”, with a “common precursor” to such incidents being “coercive and controlling behaviour”.
Speakman said that creating an offence such as coercive control could be a difficult task. But that’s what the parliamentary inquiry, the government’s just released discussion paper on the issue, as well as opening up the review for public submissions, is all about.
Instead of the pre-existing incident-based laws that relate to specific domestic violence assaults, the new laws need to be drafted with the aim of targeting patterns of behaviour that reveal the wielding of power and control over a domestic partner.
The minister further explains that patterns of behaviour being targeted can include “physical, sexual, psychological, emotional or financial abuse”, which have the potential to cause victim-survivors to lose their independence and autonomy.
Speakman also suggested that the Labor laws introduced into parliament last month aren’t quite adequate as they have the potential to be used against parents found to be unreasonably imposing nonphysical punishments upon their children.
The Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Amendment (Coercive Control—Preethi’s Law) Bill 2020 was introduced into state parliament by NSW Labor MP Anna Watson on 24 September this year.
The private members bill is dubbed Preethi’s Law after Sydney dentist Preethi Reddy, who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend Dr Harsh Narde in a Sydney CBD hotel in March last year. The killer then placed her body in a suitcase, which was found in a car two days later.
The Preethi’s Law legislation would amend the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 (NSW), with the insertion of four new sections that create a basic coercive control offence, an aggravated offence and a defence to the charge.
The offence stipulates that coercive control involves at least one of the following: making a domestic partner dependent, subordinate or isolated, controlling their activities, depriving them of freedom or access to health and law practitioners, or frightening, humiliating, degrading or punishing them.
The basic offence would become aggravated if a child was involved in some way. There are provisions contained in the legislation that work to include behaviour carried out in another state, while the defence involves the questioned behaviour being reasonable under given circumstances.
Labor’s bill carries a maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $5,500 for the basic coercive control crime, while being found guilty of the aggravated offence would make an individual liable to up to 10 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $13,200.
Cases in point
The Domestic Violence Death Review report details a number of intimate partner homicide case studies.
Case 3918 was the murder-suicide of a married couple, where there was no prior or anecdotal evidence to show that the male perpetrator had ever been physically violent before. However, during their 20 year marriage, he’d been extremely controlling and abusive.
Case 3333 involved the murder of a woman by her male ex-partner. Just a week prior to her death, she mentioned his harassment to a police officer, which had involved him contacting her friends to spread rumours about her. But no advice was forthcoming, and she was dead the following week.
The report’s ninth recommendation is that the NSW Department of Communities and Justice review current stalking and intimidation laws to ascertain whether they cover controlling patterns of behaviour, as well as monitor the effectiveness of such laws in other jurisdictions.
The just released NSW government discussion paper on the issue maintains that the state supports this recommendation and that the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) is currently carrying out a comprehensive review of stalking and intimidation laws in this state.
Criminalise Coercive Control
“It’s time the law recognised the most dangerous and damaging aspect of domestic and family violence,” said Women’s Safety NSW chief executive Hayley Foster in the lead up to the launch of the Criminalise Coercive Control campaign on Monday.
Women’s Safety NSW is one of the groups calling for coercive control laws to be enacted in all states and territories.
The campaign coalition includes White Ribbon Australia, Queensland Women’s Legal Service and Doctors Against Violence Towards Women.
The coalition wants to see these laws rolled out in all Australian jurisdictions by July 2021. It’s also calling for consultation periods that will involve frontline services and survivors, as well as that the necessary resources needed to make this all happen are forthcoming.
The campaign posits that the criminalising of coercive control leads to the legitimisation of “the foundational element of domestic abuse that consists of deliberate tactics”, which can include manipulation, surveillance, intimidation and isolation.
“Criminalising coercive control, with support for police and courts to effect the new laws, will be a pivotal step in our nation’s effort to reduce violence against women and prevent domestic violence homicide,” Foster added.
If you’re in need of help, or someone you know is, contact the DV Line on 1800 656 463 or 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732.