What Is Coercive Control And What Can You Do About It?

In England and Wales, it is a criminal offence to subject another to coercive control. But what amounts to such behaviour and how do you know it is happening? Most importantly, what can you do about it? This article sets out how the law can protect you.

Such behaviour can be subtle and cunning. An abuser is a skilled manipulator and will lie their way out of any situation, making you believe you are in the wrong. They may even force you to admit this. Such behaviour is systematic and a classic sign of gaslighting.

What counts as coercive control?

Forms of coercive control include but are not limited to:

  • Constantly putting you down and name calling
  • Controlling you financially – taking your money or making you account for everything you spend
  • Punching walls, breaking your belongings
  • Threatening to harm you and/or the children
  • Threatening to commit suicide
  • Controlling when/where you sleep and what you eat
  • Begging and crying for forgiveness
  • Telling you it will never happen again

This is by no means an exhaustive list and can never be so because an abuser will often tailor their behaviour to their victim. Consequently, conduct can vary greatly from one relationship to another.

What the law says about coercive control

In December 2015, the Serious Crime Act created an offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in family or intimate relationships. Patterns of such behaviour tend to be well established even before a first incident is reported.

It is common for an abuser to make or threaten to make bogus allegations about their victims to social services, the police, and other authorities. These threats are part of their controlling and coercive behaviour, which you can also report to the police.

The police will only prosecute an abuser for coercive control if the behaviour being complained about happens on at least two separate occasions. There must also be evidence that the victim feared violence will be used against them, or they suffered serious distress or alarm affecting their day-to-day life.

Only someone who is ‘personally connected’ to you can commit the offence of coercive control. The law considers that you are personally connected to your abuser if you are in an ‘intimate relationship’ with them. This could be your spouse, partner, or someone you have a romantic connection to and includes same-sex relationships. You can also be personally connected to someone if they are a member of your family, such as an adult child or anyone else you are related to. It can also include someone your spouse or partner is related to and that you live with, their parents, for example.

Offenders found guilty of coercive and controlling behaviour may receive a community order, but for more serious offences, they could face five years’ imprisonment.

What evidence do you need to prove coercive control?

Statutory guidance sets out a non-exhaustive list of the sort of evidence that might prove whether coercive control took place. Things such as:

  • Emails
  • Phone records
  • Voicemail and text messages
  • Photographs of injuries
  • Body worn footage (police)
  • Medical records
  • Bank statements
  • Victim’s diary
  • Witness testimony (neighbours, GP)
  • GPS tracking apps or devices installed on mobile phones or vehicles

The real issue around prosecution surrounds the ‘burden of proof’. This is a legal hurdle that must be overcome to prove to the court that the behaviour being complained about actually happened. There are two standards: one for the civil courts (the balance of probabilities) and a higher one for the criminal courts (beyond reasonable doubt). Domestic abuse has the ability to straddle both courts. If the victim is seeking an injunction in the family court, then it is a civil matter. And if the abuser has been charged by police with an offence, then it is a criminal matter.

Proving coercive control to a criminal court can be a herculean task, with hard-pressed and over-worked police officers often failing to put together sufficient evidence to overcome the burden of proof hurdle. The onus therefore tends to fall to the victim to provide the police with the evidence they require, although for those forced to flee their home, this may be easier said than done.

If you are helping the police gather evidence, consider your safety and that of any children first. Although it is perfectly understandable you would want to help secure a conviction, remember, it is the job of the police to investigate and they should not expect you to do anything that puts you in danger.

Where to go to for help

If you have been the victim of coercive control and there is an emergency, you should call the police on 999. For non-emergency cases, you should dial 101.

National domestic abuse organisations include:

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