Published on January 2, 2023

Coercive and controlling behaviour is often a covert form of abuse. It can be insidious and difficult to evidence but causes serious harm to the victim. Since 2015, coercive control has been a criminal offence in England and Wales.

Am I experiencing coercive control?

Whilst the term ‘coercive control’ has become familiar, they are in fact two separate behaviours which constitute an offence of domestic abuse. A distinction can be made as follows: 

Controlling behaviour is an act or series of acts intended to make you feel dependent, isolated or subordinate.

Examples of such behaviour include:

  • Isolating you from your family, friends and support system;
  • Controlling your finances;
  • Depriving you of your independence and basic needs, for example, not letting you have access to a vehicle or denying you access to support; 
  • Repeatedly putting you down by being critical of your worth, or by name calling; or
  • Regulating your everyday behaviour by monitoring your activities and movements by, for example, hacking into your accounts.

Coercive behaviour is an act or series of acts that an abuser uses to make you feel punished, scared and frightened. 

For example:

  • Threats: such as threatening to harm or kill you or your loved ones, or to publish information about you, or reporting you to the police or authorities;
  • Damaging your property;
  • Intimidating and / or humiliating you, for example, through the enforcement of unnecessary and demeaning rules or comments in front of others or privately;
  • Assaulting you; or
  • Forcing you to participate in criminal activity or child abuse. 

To fall within the criminal definition of coercive control, these behaviours must come from someone who is personally connected with you. This includes someone you have an intimate personal connection with, such as a spouse or partner. If you both live under the same roof, a personal connection also includes a family member, or someone who you have had a previous intimate relationship with.  

If it is safe to do so, you may find it useful to keep a diary of key behaviours to establish a pattern of events. This may help you to tell others about your experience and also to demonstrate patterns of behaviour which emerge. 

What happens when I report coercive control?

Your abuser will be guilty of this criminal offence if:

  1. They repeatedly or continuously engage in the controlling or coercive behaviour against you;
  2. You both are personally connected at the time of the behaviour;
  3. This behaviour has a serious effect on you; and
  4. They know or ought to know that the behaviour will have a serious effect on you. 

In this context, serious effect means that the behaviour causes you to:

  • Fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against you, or 
  • Experience serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on your usual day-to-day activities. For example, your physical and / or mental health has deteriorated, your social life has changed, or you have changed the way you behave within the house by having to implement safeguarding measures. These effects could also be in your workplace such as your working patterns and journey. 

If convicted, an abuser could be jailed for up to five years, or made to pay a fine, or both. In addition, they may also be guilty of other criminal offences. For example, if the controlling or coercive behaviour involved the breaking of your electronic devices or personal possessions, they would have also committed the offence of criminal damage. 

Protection in the Family Court

The Family Court has a range of powers to deal with coercive control. It can make a non-molestation order which protects you and any relevant child from harassment or violence. It can prohibit certain behaviours from your abuser, such as contacting you or being violent towards you. The breach of a non-molestation order is a criminal offence, so you are able to report the breach of the order directly to the police. The Family Court can also make an occupation order dealing with who lives at the family home. If appropriate, this could order your abuser to move out of the property or to keep a certain distance away from it. Some occupation orders have a power of arrest attached to it, which allows police officers to arrest the respondent if they breach the order

Coercive and controlling behaviour is frequently alleged within children proceedings as a factor relevant to the determination of a child’s welfare. The Family Court has a continuing duty to consider whether domestic abuse is an issue, and this includes coercive and controlling behaviours. It is important to raise the fact that you have experienced coercive and controlling behaviour early on to ensure the court is aware of this potential safeguarding issue. The court may decide to hold a fact-finding hearing if it considers the truth of your allegations need to be determined in order to make welfare decisions in relation to your children. 

What do I do in an emergency? 

If you are unable to speak due to fear for your safety, and are calling 999 from a mobile, you can press 55 when prompted. This is known as the “silent solution” and will transfer your call to a police call handler who will try to communicate with you. 

In the event of a non-emergency, you can contact your local police force by dialling 101. The charity, Refuge, also runs a 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247. 

Phillippa Kum & Polly Atkins contributed to ‘Separating With Children 101’, 3rd edition (Bath Publishing, 2023)

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The Impact On Children

It is so easy to be told that you need to put your children first when we are separating, but what does it actually mean? When your life is turmoil and emotions are running high this can feel daunting when there are so many things to think about. If you have a child with someone, then regardless of whatever you think of them or whatever they might have done, they will still have an important role to play in the life of your child. Exceptions to this are rare. Possessive language that excludes or minimises the role of the other parent can negatively impact the relationship between that parent and the child and can increase conflict and make it more difficult to co-parent. We know that conflict and/or parental absence in particular has a negative impact on children.

Parents need to create the right conditions for children to thrive.

For children, whilst separation will bring inevitable feelings of loss and change, they can still thrive if their parents work in partnership to create the right conditions. We know that children are more likely to adapt with fewer problems, and less emotional distress, when parents are able to part with compassion and continue to work together in partnership even when they are not together. On this hub you will find lots of article and tips on how to minimise the impact on children. For example; how do you set up two homes? How do you co-parent well? What does it mean to put your children first? How do you tell your child you are separating? What do I tell the school? What about holidays? And much more...

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