New Proposed Domestic Violence Laws on Criminalising ‘Coercive Control’: An Interview with Dr Karen Williams of Doctors Against Violence Towards Women

By Poppy Morandin.

 

Individuals in a domestic relationship who psychologically abuse their partners through practices known as ‘coercive control’ could face criminal prosecution, following a bill introduced by Labor MP Anna Watson to NSW Parliament.

If passed, the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Amendment (Coercive Control—Preethi’s Law) Bill 2020 will amend the existing Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 (NSW) in order to create an offence criminalising engaging in conduct that constitutes coercive control in a domestic relationship.

The term ‘coercive control’ describes harm to victims that is often non-violent yet psychological in nature and encapsulates a pattern of conduct ranging from acts of assault, threats, intimidation, and humiliation.

Common examples of coercive control include isolating someone from their friends and family, controlling someone finances, monitoring someone time or activities, or engaging in actions constituting humiliation or degradation.

The patterned behaviour creates a situation in which the victim’s life is controlled, leading to him/her finding it increasingly difficult to leave the relationship, due to the power the perpetrator holds.

“It can take many forms. It can be verbal abuse, psychological abuse, financial abuse, sexual abuse, spiritual abuse. But it’s really…a collection of extreme forms of abuse that deprive the victim, who’s usually a woman, of their autonomy, of their independence.” said Mark Speakman, New South Wales Attorney General.

Currently, unless perpetrators commit physical violence, stalk, breach a domestic violence order, or damage property, the situation is unlikely to be detected by authorities.

The bill is named in the honour of Preethi Reddy who was murdered by an ex-intimate partner, who reportedly had not been physically violent during their relationship but had shown signs of coercive control.

Nithya Reddy, Preethi’s sister, has commented that the physical violence committed on her sibling was his “final act of control”.

“When we talk about victims, we tend to identify the victim of the abuse but there is so much more grief associated with domestic abuse, especially when it ends in the death of an intimate partner or ex-intimate partner,” commented Shellhabour Labor MP, Anna Watson.

“Not surprisingly, the abuse and the deaths almost always involve coercive or controlling behaviours, with those behaviours following an escalating controlling pattern of behaviour leading to physical abuse or the death of an intimate partner.” she continued, in introducing the bill.

New South Wales Domestic Violence Review Team has found 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.

“When you think of domestic violence everyone considers physical actions, and not actually what leads to that…coercive control is part of what allows perpetrators to become physical and dangerous because it sets the scene before the violence starts, and we are only prosecuting, if we prosecute, that final stage when it’s all too late,” explained Dr Karen Williams of Doctors Against Violence Towards Women (DATVW).

“If we start early, I think we would significantly reduce the mortality rate that we see in domestic violence.” stated Dr Williams.

On average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner in Australia.

“Furthermore, it isn’t just the physical stuff that causes damage, if you prevent a woman from seeing her family, if you isolate her, if you do not allow her to work or have money, there are a multitude of impacts… she’s not going to have super or a retirement and we know the fastest growing group experiencing homelessness are women…there’s so many impacts of the psychological abuse that are completely ignored,” she explained further.

Countries such as England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland currently criminalise coercive control.

“The [Department of Communities & Justice] team is well underway in reviewing coercive control laws in other jurisdictions, especially Scotland and England including how often charges are laid, when they progress to a defended hearing, how often that results in a conviction. Watch this space.”announced Mark Speakman.

“It would be a very large reform to move away from incident-based approaches to domestic abuse to looking at a kind of systemic pattern of behaviour,” he further commented.

“It is easy to identify coercive control if you truly want to. If one wants to look at a whole picture instead of a moment in time like they do now.” added Dr Williams.

Some conservatives have expressed concerns, such as Mark Latham, One Nation’s leader in NSW, who commented: “the NSW Orwellian Liberals are now aiming to put marriages and families on trial for the newly invented DV offence.”

Mr Latham tried to suggest on Twitter that the offence could criminalise a man driving the family car without permission, or who draws money from a joint bank account and does not tell his wife, even calling advocates “feminazis,”.

“People like Mark Latham have no idea what coercive control actually is.” commented Dr Williams.

“It is important that we don’t let innocent men go to jail, but it’s also important that we value the lives of women and children and protect them…there has to be a balance and at the moment its weighed heavily on the side of protecting perpetrators,”

“There needs to be education around what constitutes coercive control… Our current culture celebrates and even romanticises when a man takes over a woman’s life, we need to start teaching the next generation of women, that this isn’t a good thing, and to know the difference between what is romantic and loving behaviour and what is controlling,” she continued.

Labor’s draft bill is modelled off the law in Scotland and defines the conduct constituting coercive control by listing a number of behaviours that would need to be proven as part of a pattern.

“One of them, for example, says controlling, regulating or monitoring the other person’s day-to-day activities; another part says frightening, humiliating, degrading or punishing the other person.” commented Labor MP, Trish Doyle.

There are reports that the offence may introduce a mandatory sentence of five years imprisonment.

Furthermore, the draft is set to include a defence that specifies that unreasonable behaviour will not necessarily constitute criminal action and the court will ultimately assess whether the perpetrator intended to cause harm to the victim, or alternatively was recklessly indifferent to the harm they might have caused.

Dr Williams has been consulted on the proposition and is set to be engaged in discussions with the legislature next month.

“There’s so many women and children being murdered…the status quo is not working, and we need to do something about it.” she summarised.

Have a question on domestic violence and AVO laws? Call our friendly staff to arrange a free initial consult with an experienced domestic violence lawyer in Sydney today.

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