Coercive Control Law: why it was needed and why other countries should follow our lead

I have been training law enforcement professionals for just over twenty years, highlighting through my research and analysis (including Terrorism Begins At Home: It’s Time To Join the Dots 2020;  ‘Getting Away With It: A Profile of the Domestic Abuse Sexual Offenders and Serious Offenders’ 2004  Findings From the Domestic Homicide Reviews 2003) and that these are the most dangerous of perpetrators – when left unchecked.

Yet, domestic violence murders and stalking murders are the most preventable and predictable of all cases.

There’s almost always a pattern of abusive prior to the murders and largely we are talking about murders of women. That’s a pattern too – and that should not be ignored.

I always underline the power and control dynamics and tactics used by abusers and connect the learning to all the murders that have happened over the years, such as Clare Bernal who was stalked and murdered in 2005 in London and Jane Clough who was stalked and murdered in 2010 in Lancashire. Many of the same patterns repeat over the over again (www.dashriskchecklist.co.uk)

Most of the professionals, by the end of the training session understand that coercive control is a pattern of behaviour – a behavioural regime – used by perpetrators. Many of them have told me that the cases and pictures of the women and girls I highlight and show, those who are no longer alive to tell their stories, stayed with them and made them want to do their jobs better. Yet, they would leave my classroom and when called to a ‘domestic’ they would attend ‘the incident’ and look for the physical evidence to prove ‘the incident’. 

This was a major problem, not easily remedied. The legislative framework denoted ‘the incident’ as a singular event – yet domestic abuse – coercive control and stalking are patterned behaviours that entrap victims and steal their agency and autonomy over time. Furthermore, the media continues with this misconception when murders of women are reported as ‘isolated incidents.’ It’s systemic yet it’s highly misleading and dangerous for women when the word ‘incident’ is used.

I well understand that I can change the hearts and minds of professionals in my training sessions so that they take domestic abuse seriously and we can educate people about how to identify abuse and high risk behaviours. However, when women come forward and reported non-physical abuse, there was no offence – there was no crime – and often police and others would say there was nothing that they could do.

The legislative framework was the problem. When you think about it – it has been created and crafted by men for men (so that’s a sizeable challenge!) but it is also outdated and flawed and needs to catch up if it is to recognize the very essence and reality of domestic abuse.

Having successfully campaigned to change the law on stalking, resulting in a new offence of stalking in 2012, I knew it was possible to lobby for a new coercive control offence and the evidence and facts would speak for themselves. How could it be right to deny so many victims protection?

Our campaign team pulled together an advisory board, leading academics in domestic abuse and stalking, we wrote extensive briefing papers highlighting the criminalization gaps, we used case studies and case law (the evidence) and we listened extensively to the voices of victims and professionals,  just as we did with stalking.

In fact, there was a direct nexus between the two and I firmly believe that had we not changed the law on stalking it would have been even more challenging to successfully campaign for the coercive control law and achience law reform within 12 months – a first I was told by a number of Members of Parliament.

Stalking and coercive control are both patterns of behavior, much of which is about the psychological impact and psychological undoing of a victim gradually over time.

Moreover, many of the behaviours used in stalking are used to coercively control someone whilst in a relationship. Ironically, the same behaviours on separation are called stalking and it was deemed to be a crime. Any pre-separation non-physical behaviour was ignored – namely the police said there was nothing they could do, as it was not a crime.

It made no sense that the moment of break-up became legally meaningful, particularly given that this is the most dangerous time for a woman. Why wait for behaviour to escalate and criminalize it on separation? My research highlighted that 76% of murders happen on separation, and most arguments that precede the murder are about child custody.

The Femicide Census in England and Wales (2016) revealed that this has remained static. Furthermore, I estimate that about 80% of murders of women happen within the first six months of the break up. Separation is the most dangerous time for a woman and it takes on average seven times to leave an abuser. It is with finality, when they have finally left, that behaviour can escalate to serious harm and murder and by then it is too late.

To compound matters, in order to use the stalking law, the behaviour must be uninterrupted i.e the back and forth of separation (largely owing to emotional investment, financial entrapment and children) renders it unprosecutable – namely the stalking law cannot be used.

We presented  evidence and case law to the Home Office arguing that the law can criminalise a course of conduct and can move beyond physical injury – but it is selective. We highlighted that it needed to apply to violence in intimate relationships, as it does to stalking, given their fundamental similarity. Stalking laws criminalise a course of conduct, target patterns and address a broad range of harm. In these important respects, stalking legislation was useful when considering violence in intimate relationships.

And so it became even more pressing to close this criminalization gap to better protect women and ensure women come forward far earlier.

Once there is physical and/or sexual abuse, escalation has already happened. If strangulation occurs, the risk of serious harm and/or femicide increases sevenfold.

Left unchecked and without an intervention, the picture remains bleak for women.

The UN state that the most dangerous place for a woman is IN HER HOME.

As girls and women, we are warned continuously about stranger danger – but it’s the men who claim to love and care for us that we should be concerned with once the relationship ends:

In the UK a woman is murdered every three days at the hands of a current or ex male partner.

In the USA four woman are murdered every day by their (ex) or current male partner

In Australia at least one woman is murdered every week by a man who was supposed to love and care for her.

This is a pandemic and be advised that this does not include near misses or death by suicides caused by entrapment and insidious abuse by male domestic abusers.

When we surveyed domestic abuse victims and survivors and asked them what they wanted to change, 98% of victims said that law reform was needed

Interestingly 97% of professionals said that coercive control should be recognized in law

I firmly believe that closing down criminalization gaps and ensuring the legislative framework reflects the reality of domestic violence in all its guises is in everyone’s interest. My focus has always been on early identification, intervention and prevention, particularly given the research that shows coercive control and stalking correlates significantly with femicide and familicide and I still firmly believe that these are the most predictable and preventable of all murders.

We just need to ensure that women matter more.

Other countries are now following suit and criminalizing coercive control. I am hopeful America and Australia will be next.

For if we say nothing, do nothing and change nothing – exactly nothing will change for women. Sign the petitions below

More about our England and Wales domestic abuse law reform campaign

The Coercive Control Law in England and Wales

Coercive Control Law Reform Campaign in the USA – sign the petition

Coercive Control Law Reform in Australia – sign the petition

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Mead)