Is Financial Abuse a Crime in Australia?

Jimmy Singh and Poppy Morandin.

Key Takeaway

Financial abuse is a type of coercive control yet to be criminalised in New South Wales, which the NSW Government has committed to introducing laws to outlaw and recognise as a form of domestic violence as a stand-alone offence. Financial abuse will cover perpetrators behaviours of controlling or restricting their partners financial resources as a form of coercive control.

A recent report has revealed that more than 600,000 Australians over the past 12-months had been victims of financial abuse, costing over $10 billion a year.

The report, commissioned by Commonwealth Bank, found that at least one in 30 women and one in 50 men were victims.

It notes that the figures underestimate the full extent of the issue.

Financial abuse is classified as where a preparator seeks to control or restrict their partner’s financial resources, and is a common behaviour identified within those who engage in coercive control.

It frequently occurs in relationships where domestic violence has, is, or is at risk of occurring.

Financial abuse is reported to have costed victims $5.7 billion in 2020.

This is largely attributed to perpetrators withholding or controlling a victim’s income, which is the most common form of financial abuse.

It can also be attributed to those who refuse to contribute funds to household expenses, including providing for shared children.

According to financial abuse statistics in Australia, it is estimated to have cost the wider economy $5.2 billion, via rippling impacts attributed to subsequent impacts on ones’ mental health and productivity.

The NSW Government has committed to criminalising behaviour associated with coercive control, following the finalisation of a parliamentary inquiry into the issue late last year.

 

Financial Abuse

Definition of ‘coercive control’ is harm to victims that is non-violent and psychological in nature and encapsulates a pattern of actions ranging from acts of assault, threats, intimidation, financial control and humiliation.

Common examples of coercive control include isolating someone from their friends and family, monitoring someone else’s time or activities, controlling someone’s finances, or engaging in actions constituting humiliation or degradation including via verbal abuse.

The pattern of behaviour can create a situation, if left on-going, where the perpetrator essentially has control over the victim’s life, leading to them finding it increasingly difficult to leave the relationship.

This is evident in situations of financial abuse, which can leave victims without savings or assets.

Currently in NSW, unless the perpetrator’s behaviour has escalated to physical violence, stalking, breaching an apprehended domestic violence order, or damaging property, the situation is unlikely to be detected by authorities.

It has thus been found crucial to address such preliminary behaviour, seeking to prevent escalation.

The Domestic Violence Death Review Team, in their submissions to the inquiry, revealed that in 99% of domestic violence cases in NSW, the relationship between a victim of domestic violence and their abuser is characterised by the abuser’s use of coercive and controlling behaviours towards the victim.

It also found that intimate partner homicide in NSW is typically preceded by coercive control, often without any recorded physical violence.

Offenders are mainly male, and perpetrate various forms of abuse against the victim, including psychological abuse and emotional abuse.

“No person deserves to live in fear, and it is part of our responsibilities in Government to uphold the safety and human dignity of all of our citizens,” commented Mr Mark Speakman, Attorney General and Minister for Prevention of Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Following the Joint Select Committee on Coercive Control, the Government announced that it would be supporting 17 of the Committee’s 23 unanimous recommendations.

A key feature of this is the process of introducing a stand-alone offence to address coercive control, as well as possible amendments to other existing laws.

“Any legislative reform must be approached with great care and caution to ensure it does not unintentionally put in further danger those in our community we are seeking to help.  This is also to ensure that the offence is calibrated appropriately to capture only conduct of the very serious standard deserving of criminal sanction, avoiding over-reach.” explained Mr Speakman.

 

Financial Abuse Domestic Violence in New South Wales

In 2020, a bill was introduced called the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Amendment (Coercive Control—Preethi’s Law) Bill 2020 which sought to amend the existing Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 (NSW) to create an offence criminalising coercive control. It proposed a prescribed maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment and/or $5,500 fine.

The bill was named in honour of Preethi Reddy who was murdered by an ex-intimate partner.

Preethi was brutally murdered, with her ex-partner attempting to conceal the crime by hiding her body in a suitcase.

It was reported that whilst her partner had not been physically violent during their relationship, he had shown signs of coercive control.

The bill defines coercive control, as conduct that has, or is reasonably likely to have, one or more of the following effects:

  • making the other person dependent on, or subordinate to, the person,
  • isolating the other person from friends, relatives, or other sources of support,
  • controlling, regulating, or monitoring the other person’s day-to-day activities,
  • depriving the other person of, or restricting the other person’s, freedom of action,
  • depriving the other person of, or restricting the other person’s, access to support services, including the services of health practitioners and legal practitioners,
  • frightening, humiliating, degrading, or punishing the other person.

The bill was introduced by Shellhabour Labor MP, Anna Watson, into parliament and did not proceed past the second reading speech in the Legislative Assembly.

It appears that the Government intends to present its own form of the legislation to the state parliament in due course. This focus will be on criminalising the offence of coercive control to prevent conduct encompassing financial control to send a clear message across that this type of abuse is rejected by our society.

Domestic violence in NSW currently doesn’t identity financial abuse as a type of domestic violence, although this type of abuse could potentially be caught by the current definition of “domestic violence offence” under the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 (NSW) which amongst other things, says, “..an offence (other than a personal violence offence) the commission of which is intended to coerce or control the person against whom it is committed or to cause that person to be intimidated or fearful (or both).”

It is arguable that a “personal violence offence” here includes section 44 Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) of a person failing to provide necessities of life.

That said, the current provisions do not clearly and adequately protect victims of financial abuse who are not technically caught within the existing laws that otherwise protect domestic violence victims.

What is Financial Abuse?

Financial abuse is considered a form of coercive control and includes being used, intimidated, scared, or harmed by someone else with the use or control of money. This can take many forms in itself, including forcing you to take out a loan against your will, withholding money from you that you should normally have access to, refusing to include you in decision making processes concerning finances or property that you also own.

Financial abuse includes controlling a victim’s ability to have, use, and maintain financial resources.

Financial abuse in relationships via withholding money from spouse abuse, or in marriage by a husband or wife occurs in over 90% of domestic violence cases in Australia.

How to report financial abuse? Help is available by simply calling 1800 737 732 White Ribbon Australia.

 

Financial Abuse Australia

Is financial abuse a crime in Australia?

Yes, it is considered a crime. Laws in all states and territories except for NSW recognise financial abuse as a form of domestic violence. NSW is currently addressing the issue and will be introducing new laws to both acknowledge and prohibit this kind of abuse.

Signs of Financial Abuse or Financial Exploitation

Normally when we hear about domestic abuse or violence we think of physical abuse. However, coercive control including financial abuse are also a reality which people normally do not think of. It is a silent type of abuse and is said to occur in 99% of domestic violence cases.

Emotional abuse usually accompanies financial abuse in context where the impact of financial abuse is often so devastating that victims are left feeling inadequate and unsure about themselves. Signs of financial abuse includes tactics used making the victim feel isolated and financially dependent which leaves them feeling trapped in the relationship. Other signs include the following:

  • Attempts at someone trying to use or access your money
  • Having your assets used for someone else’s personal benefit without your consent
  • Someone taking your funds with a credit card without your consent
  • Accumulating a bad credit history by reaching your credit card limits and failing to pay it back
  • Borrowing money from you without repaying it back
  • Demands of you disclosing your bank passwords
  • Where you end up always paying the other person’s bills
  • Where you are often required to pay money to get the other person out of trouble time and time again
  • Having your bank statements opened by someone else
  • Where someone threatens to lie to official by claiming that you have cheated or misused benefits.
  • Job interference i.e. pressuring you to quit working, dictating you where and when you can work
  • Where the other person refuses to collaborate on finances
  • Where the other person makes big financial decisions without your input
  • Where the other person hides or takes funds and deposits them in another private account
  • Where the other person forces you to sign documents without explaining what it is
  • Where the other person threatens to cut you off from financial access whenever there is disagreement.

Western Australia Financial Abuse Laws

Western Australian laws, under the Restraining Orders Act 1997 (WA) recognises and prohibits behaviour that may constitute family violence, including unreasonably denying the family member the financial autonomy that the member would otherwise have had; or unreasonably withholding financial support needed to meet the reasonable living expenses of the family member, or a child of the member, at a time when the member is entirely or predominantly dependent on the person for financial support.

Victoria Financial Abuse Laws

Victoria recognises “family violence” under the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 as behaviour by a person towards a family member of that person if that behaviour is physically or sexually abusive; is emotionally or psychologically abusive; economically abusive; threatening, coercive; or in any other way controls or dominates the family member and causes that family member to feel fear for the safety or wellbeing of that family member of another person; or behaviour by a person that causes a child to hear or witness, or otherwise be exposed to the effects of, behaviour referred to earlier.

“economic abuse” is defined in section 6 Family Violence Protection Act 2008 as behaviour by a person that is coercive, deceptive or unreasonably controls another person without consent in a way that denies that person the economic or financial autonomy he/she would have had but for that behaviour; or by withholding or threatening to withhold the financial support necessary for meeting the reasonable living expenses of that person or that person’s child, if that person is entirely or predominantly dependent on the first person for financial support to meet those living expenses.

Victoria subsequently passed laws that criminalised behaviours, in context of family violence, of using coercion, threats, physical abuse or emotional or psychological abuse to cause or attempt to cause a person to enter a marriage; or using coercion, threats, physical abuse or emotional or psychological abuse to demand or receive dowry, either before or after a marriage. Victoria became the only place in Australia that includes dowry abuse as an example of family violence.

Tasmania Financial Abuse Laws

“Economic abuse” is defined in Tasmania’s laws under the Family Violence Act 2004. “Economic abuse” here includes “family violence”, which says, a person must not, with intent to unreasonably control or intimidate his/her spouse or partner or cause same mental harm, apprehension or fear, pursue a course of conduct made up of one or more of the following actions:

  • coercing his/her spouse or partner to relinquish control over assets or income,
  • disposing of property owned, jointly by the person and his/her spouse/partner, by his/her spouse/partner, or by an affected child, without the consent of the spouse/partner or affected child,
  • preventing his/her spouse/partner from participating in decisions over household expenditure or the disposition of joint property,
  • preventing his/her spouse/partner from accessing joint financial assets for the purposes of meeting normal household expenses,
  • withholding, or threatening to withhold, the financial support reasonably necessary for the maintenance of his/her spouse/partner or an affected child.

An issue with Tasmania’s laws on financial abuse is that it doesn’t currently allow for the possibility of this type of abuse being committed by anyone other than a spouse or partner.

South Australia Financial Abuse Laws

South Australia laws have the Intervention Orders (Prevention of Abuse) Act 2009 which recognises and prohibits financial abuse by saying that “abuse” takes different forms including economic abuse. It states that an “act of abuse” includes an act that results or is intended to result in an unreasonable and non-consensual denial of financial, social or personal autonomy.

The Criminal Law Consolidation (Domestic abuse) Amendment Bill 2018 was introduced in 2018 prescribing  up to 7 years imprisonment to a person who repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards another person that’s controlling or coercive, and at the time of the behaviour, the person and the victim are in a relationship, and the behaviour has a serious effect on the victim, and the person knows or ought to know that the behaviour will have a serious effect on the victim.

Queensland Financial Abuse Laws

Queensland has the Domestic and Family Violence Protection Act 2012 which recognises and includes financial abuse as a type of domestic violence.

It defines economic abuse as behaviour by a person that’s coercive, deceptive or unreasonably controls another person without consent in a way that denies the person the economic or financial autonomy that he/she would have had but for that behaviour; or by withholding or threatening to withhold the financial support necessary for, meeting the reasonable living expenses of that person or child, if that person or child is entirely or predominantly dependent on the first person for financial support to meet those living expenses.

Northern Territory Financial Abuse Laws

Northern Territory also recognise and prohibit economic abuse as a type of family violence under the Domestic and Family Violence Act 2007.

It defines economic abuse of a person as conduct that encompasses any of the following:

  • coercing the person to relinquish control over asset or income i.e. using stand-over tactics to obtain the person’s credit card,
  • unreasonably disposing of property (whether owned by the person or owned jointly with the person or someone else) without consent,
  • unreasonably preventing the person from taking part in decisions over household expenditure or the disposition of joint property,

withholding money reasonably necessary for the maintenance of the person or a child of the person.

About Jimmy Singh

Mr. Jimmy Singh is the Principal Lawyer at Criminal Defence Lawyers Australia - Leading Criminal Lawyers in Sydney, Delivering Exceptional Results in all Australian Criminal Courts.

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