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.
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Coercive and controlling behaviour is both a calculated and deliberate act designed to manipulate, isolate and intimidate another into absolute obedience. It can start with something seemingly innocuous, such as having to account for your whereabouts: I need to know where you are so I can keep you safe. Having someone concerned for your safety can be powerful. But that sense of protectiveness becomes a problem if they are constantly monitoring your time or setting limits on how long it takes to perform a certain task, such as the weekly big shop. Whatever form coercive control takes, the key is to recognise that it is happening to you and do something about it.
Recognising coercive control
Certain behaviours characterise coercive control: pressure tactics where your ability to go to work or study is curtailed or your phone or laptop is destroyed or closely monitored. Stalking, telling you what to wear, checking up on you or not allowing you any privacy such as opening your mail or going through your phone are all ways one person exercises control over another. An abuser may also try to isolate someone by preventing them from seeing family or friends, not letting them use their car or locking them in the house.
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:
- 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:
- National Refuge Helpline: 0808 2000 247 (https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk)
- Women’s Aid (https://www.womensaid.org.uk/information-support/)
- Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327 (https://mensadviceline.org.uk)
- National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 999 5428 (https://galop.org.uk/get-help/helplines/)
The information on this website is to be considered a guide and is therefore not legal advice. You use this information with the understanding that Wiselaw does not accept liability for any direct or indirect losses as a result of anyone relying on or acting upon the information on this website. Whilst we endeavour to provide accurate information, Wiselaw does not accept liability for any errors or omissions on this website.