15 July 2021

How to prove coercive control in court

By Maria Endall, Solicitor, Hayes + Storr.

Coercive and/or controlling behaviour in the context of the family has come to the fore in a recent group of high-profile Court of Appeal cases which have shone a spotlight on the difficulties of identifying and proving this complex and insidious form of domestic abuse.

Coercive and controlling behaviour in an intimate or family relationship has been a criminal offence since it was enshrined in the Serious Crime Act 2015, and provisions have also now been made for those subjected to this form of abuse in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. But what happens when children are involved and the abuse is either directed at them or witnessed by them?

Clearly in this situation, the child/ren are likely to suffer harm by virtue of the perpetrator’s controlling and coercive behaviour and it may have a bearing on any decision about the child/ren’s contact with the perpetrator in the future.

Therefore, it may be necessary for the family courts to look at any allegations of coercive control to determine whether findings should be made against the perpetrator, and if so, whether they are likely to have a bearing on the level of contact the perpetrator should have with the children in the future.

So, what is controlling and coercive behaviour and how do you prove that children are involved and that it poses a risk of harm to them? Coercive behaviour can be described as an act or pattern of acts, that are designed to cause harm and instill a sense of fear in the victim. Including assault, threats of punishment, intimidation and humiliation.

Controlling behaviour can be described as an act or pattern of acts designed to isolate a person from family and friends. Where they become subordinate or dependent upon their abuser. Everyday behaviour is regulated, with the perpetrator often controlling finances, job opportunities, movements, contacts, and ultimately the means to escape or be independent.

The Court of Appeal has indicated that coercive control cannot simply be identified from separate or isolated incidents, which is often the problem when any such incident is reported to the police. For example: when considered in isolation, a single incident may simply be regarded as the perpetrator being stressed, assertive, selfish or stubborn and is missed as being part of a pattern of behaviour that constitutes the offence of coercive control. Therefore, details of previous or more historical incidents may be necessary in proving the pattern of behaviour over time.

If you are being subjected to this form of abuse, it is important to log the incidents and take or keep any evidence of the behaviour. Your friends and family may also be able to contribute evidence from changes in your own behaviour or a sudden or significant drop in your contact with them.

As identified by the Court of Appeal, harm to children from this type of behaviour can be caused in the following ways:

– Obviously, if the abuse is directed against the children, but also;

– If the victim is so frightened of provoking an outburst from the perpetrator that s/he is unable to prioritise the needs of the child

– Where the abuse creates an atmosphere of fear and anxiety in the home which is in itself harmful to the welfare of the child, and/or;

– The abusive behaviour risks instilling in the child, especially boys, a set of values which involve treating women as inferior to men.

As family lawyers, and specifically as members of Resolution, we always look out for the presence of, or risk of domestic abuse being perpetrated against our clients, and we very often see it in cases where it is not the primary reason for the client seeking our advice. However, once we become aware of the circumstances, we are able to offer additional legal and practical advice to our clients who may be feeling vulnerable. For advice on family law and other legal matters, call Hayes + Storr on 01328 863231.

There are also many local and national organisations that can help:

The National Domestic Violence Helpline: 0808 2000 247

Pandora Project

The Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327

This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.