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Criminalising Coercive Control: Position Paper

Coercive control is a foundational element of domestic violence, and also a major predictor of severe physical violence and homicide. Women’s Safety NSW regards the criminalisation of coercive control as critically important if Australia is to achieve a substantial reduction in violence against women and domestic homicide. In a 2020 survey conducted by Women’s Safety NSW, ninety-six percent (96%) of survivors surveyed stated that they believed that the definition of domestic violence in the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 (NSW) should be amended so that coercive control is criminalised.

With respect to coercive control, the approaches of England and Wales (“the UK”), as well as Scotland, provide great insight into the best practice and lessons learnt from international experience that could be considered in an Australian context. This position paper explores the critical need for law reform around coercive control and offers possible avenues for reform in light of the approaches taken in these two jurisdictions, in addition to the views, experiences and perspectives of Women’s Safety NSW members who are frontline domestic and family violence specialists, and particularly the Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service professionals supporting women after a police incident and in domestic violence matters in court, as well as victim-survivors of domestic and violence themselves.

In summary, Women’s Safety NSW recommend: 

  1. The criminalisation of coercive control across Australia’s state and territories.
  2. That the definition of domestic and family violence also be expanded to include coercive control, and a broader range of behaviours, including emotional abuse, psychological abuse and financial abuse.
  3. That Australian state and territory-based coercive control provisions explicitly recognise the ‘course of conduct’ element of domestic violence offences, and that domestic and family violence is often a series of behaviours that an offender uses to intimidate and instill fear in the victim, for the purpose of establishing power and control over them.
  4. That Australian state and territory-based coercive control provisions contain an objective standard of proof when assessing the likely impact of an offender’s behaviour on the victim, to ensure accessibility to victims and reduce the risk of systems abuse by primary domestic abuse aggressors.
  5. That Australian state and territory-based coercive control provisions contain a maintain a subjective standard of proof to assesses whether the offender intended to cause the victim harm or was reckless as to whether their behaviour was likely to cause harm.
  6. That Australian state and territory-based coercive control legislation is not limited to intimate or cohabiting relationships but applies to parties who are or have previously been in an intimate relationship, parties who live together, or parties who are members of the same immediate or extended family, including under kinship.
  7. That Australian state and territory-based coercive control provisions do not exclusively focus on non-physical forms of abuse so as to exclude physical and sexual violence from being included in the charge.
  8. That Australian state and territory-based coercive control legislation include safeguards to protect non-offending parents taking reasonable steps to protect their children from an abusive parent from being criminalised.
  9. That Australian state and territory-based coercive control legislation be able to be applied retrospectively, so that ongoing offenders’ past behaviours may be considered as evidence of a ‘course of conduct’ in matters that come before the court under the new legislation.
  10. That Australian state and territory-based coercive control legislation include appropriate penalties commensurate with the severity of the offence.
  11. That the enactment of Australian state and territory-based coercive control legislation be accompanied by system reforms to ensure that system tools, resources and guidelines – including the DVSAT, Prosecution Guidelines, Judicial Benchbook and sentencing guidelines – are updated so that matters are properly identified, investigated, assessed, prosecuted and adjudicated.
  12. That the enactment of Australian state and territory-based coercive control legislation be accompanied by system reforms to ensure increased training and specialisation of frontline police, police prosecutors and judicial officers, so that such matters are appropriately identified, investigated, assessed, prosecuted and adjudicated.

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