Coercive control in relationship break-ups – how the law is changing to provide better recognition and protection

May 9, 2023

Bates Wells & Braithwaite partner Scott Emsden, a specialist in family law issues, explores where we are in terms of the law and coercive control in abusive relationships.

It is hard to believe but coercive control was only made illegal in England and Wales in 2015, and even now there is a surprisingly low level of conviction rates for the crime.

Despite storylines on coercive behaviour in popular dramas such as The Archers and Eastenders, and real-life reporting in the media, this form of abuse has only relatively recently, been highlighted and understood. This is largely down to the fact that “coercion” is all about emotional impact, rather than the often more difficult to hide, physical abuse. Coercive control is when someone you know repeatedly behaves so that you feel controlled, dependent, isolated or scared.

It is often the victims themselves who are the last to recognise their relationship as abusive. The controller may deliberately control finances, or isolate the abused from friends, family and other support networks so they simply don’t have the conversations with people they trust to enable them to recognise that the relationship is far from right and it is time to leave.

RED FLAGS – Do you recognise any of the following in your partner’s behaviour?

  • Isolating you from family and friends – destroying your support group.
  • Constant negative criticism – lowering, even destroying, your self-esteem.
  • Economic abuse – managing joint bank accounts and controlling your access to money or resources.
  • Telling you what to do – controlling what you eat, wear etc and ensuring that you live by their rules.
  • Making jealous accusations – this is not about love but ownership.
  • Parental alienation – turning your children against you.
  • Monitoring and tracking your activity – stopping you doing things independently of them so that your world becomes small and reliant on them.
  • Gaslighting – making you second guess yourself, confusing you and making you feel even a little crazy.
  • Regulating the sexual relationship – not recognising the need for consent.
  • Making threats of violence or even blackmail in terms of exposing secrets shared in confidence.

There has been some recent progress, at least in terms of the law, on how domestic abusers are to be treated. In February, the Government announced proposals which go further than ever before in protecting women and girls from harassment, aggression and violence, and which focus on stopping domestic abuse before it takes place. For the first time, controlling or coercive behaviour will be put on a par with physical violence, which will mean offenders sentenced to a year or more imprisonment or a suspended sentence will automatically be actively managed by the police, prison and probation services under multi-agency public protection arrangements. In addition, S.68 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 came into force in April amending and widening the definition of ‘personal connection’ so that you no longer need to have been cohabiting when controlling or coercive behaviour occurs. This means the offence can take place post-separation or by a family member who does not live with the victim.

Coercive control can be reported to the police and it will be a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service (‘CPS’) to decide if the abuser will be prosecuted. Protection from the Family Court can also be sought in the form of injunctions. And of course, it does not need to be the extremes of feeling endangered for this style of behaviour to be the trigger for you to get out of the relationship and, in the case of a marriage or civil partnership, seeking a divorce.

Progress is being made in terms of the law, but coercive control remains a complex legal issue both in criminal and family law. However, you do not need to deal with this abuse alone and we are here for you if you need our legal advice.

If we can help, please contact a member of our Family team.

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