Is Verbal Abuse a Crime?

Key Takeaways

Verbal abuse can amount to a criminal offence if the words fall within any of the categories of “intimidation” under the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 attracting penalties of up to 5-years imprisonment and/or $5,500 fine. Verbal abuse can also amount to the offence of “offensive language” attracting penalties of up to $660 fine only. In addition, it can also fall within the new coercive control offences in NSW attracting up to 7-years jail.

For more information get in touch with our domestic violence lawyer in Sydney.

The two main types of criminally recognised verbal abuse are found in the offence of “intimidation” under section 13 of the (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 which carries up to 5-years imprisonment and/or $5,500 fine with a criminal conviction carrying with it, and the “offensive language” offence found in section 4A of the Summary Offences Act 1988 carrying no jail sentence other than a $660 fine, in New South Wales.

The new proposed coercive control offence seeks to add another layer of protection by criminalising any conduct, including verbal abuse, that constitutes coercive control in domestic relationships.

Coercive control is harm done to victims by non-violent forms, psychologically and includes patterns of behaviour ranging from threats, intimidation, humiliation and assault.


What is Verbal Abuse? | Verbal Abuse of Intimidation Offences

The definition of “intimidation” is found in the New South Wales Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007. “Intimidation” is conduct that causes a reasonable apprehension of violence or injury to a person. It also includes approaching a person that causes fear of safety, which can be by means of email, phone call, text or other technologically assisted means. This commonly occurs in domestic violence contexts.

Intimidation also includes conduct (including cyberbullying) amounting to harassment or molestation of the person. This may include bullying someone by publicising or transmitting “offensive” material over social media or email.

Words or actions can amount to “intimidation” if it falls within the above categories.

Is verbal abuse a crime? This means, verbal abuse or verbal assault can certainly amount to a crime if it indeed falls within any of the above categories of “intimidation” under the Domestic and Personal Violence Act.

However, to be guilty of the offence of intimidation under section 13 of the Domestic and Personal Violence Act, there must be evidence that you “intimidated” a person with the intention of causing fear of physical or mental harm or evidence you knew that your actions were likely to cause such fear.

If you’re accused of intimidating under section 13 and at the time of the alleged “intimidation” you were so intoxicated (drugs and/or alcohol) that you were incapable of having the intention or knowledge at the time to cause the requisite fear, then the prosecution may be unable to prove the offence of intimidation, resulting in the charge being dismissed.

However, depending on the evidence, the court may make inferences to conclude that an accused person did in fact have the requisite intention or knowledge to cause fear at the time of the alleged intimidation.

The court can make inferences based on the conduct and/or circumstances of the conduct of the accused if that inference is the only reasonable inference available. This is what happened in the case of McIIwraith v R [2017] NSWCCA 13 where the accused was charged with armed with intent to commit an indictable offence, being intimidation under section 13. Here the court made the inferential finding that the accused must have known that his conduct in chasing the victim, from the victim’s home to the next door neighbour’s home, while carrying an axe, were likely to have the victim to fear physical harm.

On a last note, a person accused of intimidation under section 13 can still be found guilty for it even if the alleged victim did not fear physical or mental harm from your conduct. This is because this proof is not an essential element of the offence. the only two essential elements that need to be proven beyond reasonable doubt by the prosecution is the conduct of “intimidation” and the intention to cause the fear of physical or mental harm (or knowledge that your actions were likely to cause that fear).

There is no need to prove that the alleged victim feared.


Can Previous Pattern of Violence be Considered?

Any previous pattern of violence in the accused person’s behaviour, especially domestic violence behaviour for the court to determine if an accused person’s conduct amounts to “intimidation”, according to section 7 of the Domestic and Personal Violence Act.


Examples of a Verbal Assault | Verbal Abuse Domestic Violence | Parents | Workplace

Verbal assault or abuse can come in various situations, from work, friends to domestic violence and abuse.

Is verbal abuse domestic violence? A common example of verbal abuse is more commonly seen in domestic violence relationships where a partner consistently verbally abuses his/her partner over time. This will amount to an offence under s13 of the Domestic and Personal Violence Act if the partner must have known that his/her verbal abuse is likely to cause the victim to fear physical or mental harm. Past instances of verbal abuse can also be considered as evidence in court in order to prove the intimidation allegation.

We often hear about verbal abuse by husband. But it is important to also acknowledge that it also occurs to men by women.

Verbal abuse can also occur from parents or in the workplace.


Verbal Abuse of Offensive Language Offences

There is a $660 fine for committing the offence of “offensive language” in New South Wales under section 4A Summary Offences Act 1988 if the offence is brought to court. This offence carries no imprisonment.

Police can instead issue a penalty notice or an on the spot fine of $500 instead of taking it to court. Payment of this fine results in no conviction against you, and no requirement to attend court for it.

To be guilty of offensive language in NSW, the verbal abuse or words uttered must be considered by the court to be what an ordinary hypothetical reasonable person present would have considered to be “offensive” according to current community standards.

“Offensive” here is behaviour that would wound the feelings, arouse anger or resentment or disgust or outrage in the mind of a reasonable person, who is considered not to be thin-skinned, is reasonably tolerant and understanding, and reasonably contemporary in their actions in the ways articulated in the case of Ball v McIntyre (1966) 9 FLR 237 and Police v Butler [2003] NSWLC 2.

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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