13 June 2018
Family law practitioners are (unfortunately) familiar with a client's accounting of instances of domestic violence. These cases can be an isolated incident, or a series of occurrences of physical violence, perpetrated by one partner or ex-partner against the other. The violence can be verbal as well as physical. United States academic and Rutgers professor Evan Stark developed the term 'coercive control' for an ongoing range of abusive tactics which go beyond the physical violence usually associated with domestic violence situations, even though physical abuse may be present. Coercive control is more than an argument that spirals into physicality; it is an identifiable pattern of behaviours which has the purpose of removing the victim's sense of self and can include the loss of liberty and freedom of movement. Focused at women, Stark posits that 'it is not just women's bodily integrity which is violated, but also their human rights'. In his model, Stark states that coercive control stands out as a liberty crime. The victim loses the sense of self. This does not downplay range of physical violence that occurs within domestic violence cases (from no physical violence whatsoever to what our courts consider 'minor'). Instead, Stark's definition highlights 'control' at the fore of the 'nonviolent' violence. Coercive control tactics include:
- Threats and intimidation
- Isolating/destroying the partner's outside relationships in the workplace, as well as from friends and family (including restricting normal social activity — shopping, medical appointments, Parent/Teacher events — the list is not exhaustive)
- Controlling access to information and services
- Stalking, whether actual or remote via surveillance
- Unwanted face-to-face, telephone or electronic contact
- 'Where are you now' and 'take a picture and prove where you are now'
- Monitoring of telephone calls
- Dress 'codes' and 'rules'
- Forcing/restricting the consumption of food
- Creating a series of infractions of 'rules', whether actual or imaginary, requiring the 'punishment' of the partner and/or the children
- Economic control and/or exploitation
- Sexual abuse/violence, to include unwanted pregnancy
- Constant monitoring of movement and criticism
- Emotional hostage-taking
- The causing of fear and confusion and…
…this list could go on and on. The victims of coercive control need to adopt defensive behaviours in order to live, function and survive in the day-to-day panorama of 'family' life. The offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship is set out in Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015. Not all domestic violence is purely physical. All forms of domestic violence leave emotional scars.