What Is Coercive Control And What Does The Law Say?

Coercive control became illegal in England and Wales in December 2015.

Domestic abuse isn’t just physical. People can be subject to assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation that is used to punish or frighten them – this is known as coercive control.

Coercive control became illegal in England and Wales in December 2015 with the introduction of the Serious Crime Act. The act made “controlling or coercive behaviour” in intimate or familial relationships an offence – closing a long-criticised gap in the law.

Those who are found guilty of the crime face a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment and/or a fine.

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What is coercive control?

The law defines coercive control as a “continuing act, or pattern of acts, of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim”.

Controlling behaviour, which is also an offence under the law, is a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate or dependent.

The government warns that controlling or coercive behaviour is primarily a form of violence against women and girls – and is underpinned by wider societal gender inequality.

What types of behaviour count as coercive control?

Examples of coercive control include: isolating a person from their friends or family, depriving them of basic needs, medical support or other support services, monitoring their time, monitoring a person via online communication tools, and taking over aspects of their everyday life – such as where they can go, who they can see, what to wear and when they can sleep.

It also includes repeatedly putting the victim down, such as telling them they are worthless, enforcing rules and activity which humiliate or degrade the victim, or forcing the victim to take part in criminal activity such as shoplifting or abuse of children to encourage self-blame. There may also be threats to hurt or kill, threats to a child and blackmail.

Coercive control can overlap with economic control and financial abuse, which is the control of someone’s personal finances.

What does the law say?

There are several caveats to the law and the situations in which it applies:

  • Controlling or coercive behaviour does not relate to a single incident, it has to be a purposeful pattern of behaviour which takes place over a period of time or continuously.

  • The victim and alleged perpetrator must be “personally connected” at the time the behaviour takes place. This means they were either in an intimate relationship (although a couple don’t have to be cohabiting), were family members, or lived together while not in a relationship. If they were not personally connected, or the incidents took place after a relationship or cohabitation, stalking and harassment legislation may apply instead.

  • The behaviour must be deemed to have had a “serious effect” on the victim, meaning that it has caused the victim to fear violence will be used against them on “at least two occasions”, or it has had a “substantial adverse effect on the victim’s day to day activities”.

  • And finally, the behaviour must be such that the perpetrator knows or “ought to know” that it will have a serious effect on the victim.

How is coercive control proven?

Evidence used to prove coercive control include, but are not limited to: copies of emails, phone records, text messages, abuse on social media platforms, a diary kept by the victim, evidence showing the victim was isolated from family and friends, evidence showing the perpetrator accompanied the victim to medical appointments, or evidence of the victim withdrawing from social activities.

Other evidence – that might be harder for the victim to obtain – can include 999 tapes or transcripts, CCTV, records of interaction with social services, medical records, and photographs of injuries.

The Home Office says victims of controlling or coercive behaviour may not recognise themselves as such, so it’s important that police and other services consider this as a possibility when dealing with victims of other abuse.

Can the law apply to old cases?

The offence of controlling or coercive behaviour does not have retrospective effect. This means that charges cannot be brought in relation to behaviour(s) that occurred before the date the offence came into force.

However, behaviour that occurred before implementation may still be used as evidence of bad character, and any evidence relating to it should be passed to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), who can consider making an application to the court.