Recent research found that 99% of intimate partner homicides in New South Wales that occurred between 2008 and 2016 were preceded by evidence of “coercive control” within the relationship.

In 2022, the NSW parliament introduced a bill law to criminalise coercive control in an effort to prevent intimate partner homicide. Enforcement of this law will not commence until 2024, to allow time for frontline services to be trained on how to identify coercive control and raise community awareness of the behaviour. Legislators hope that the law will make a positive difference in the lives of victims and help prevent further instances of coercive control and domestic violence.

Defining Coercive Control in NSW

A perpetrator uses coercive control to dominate and control their partner in an intimate relationship. This type of behaviour often involves tactics such as isolation, manipulation, intimidation, and surveillance. Over time, this sort of behaviour can have the cumulative effect of denying victim-survivors autonomy and independence.

Under the new law in New South Wales, coercive control is defined as behaviour that:

  • Is part of a pattern of behaviour,
  • Is aimed at controlling, dominating or intimidating a person in a domestic relationship,
  • Causes the victim to fear for their safety or the safety of someone else, and
  • Would cause a reasonable person in the victim’s position to fear for their safety or the safety of someone else.

Examples of behaviour that could be considered coercive control include isolating a person from their friends and family, controlling their finances, monitoring their movements, and using threats or intimidation to control their behaviour.

Why criminalise coercive control?

Research has shown that there is a strong link between coercive control and domestic homicide. The abuser’s need for control can escalate to the point where they feel that the only way to maintain their power is through violence. In addition, coercive control can create a situation where the victim feels trapped and unable to leave the relationship. The abuser may have convinced the victim that they are worthless or that no one else will ever love them, making it difficult for them to seek help or support. This can increase the risk of homicide as the victim may feel that they have no other option but to stay in the abusive relationship, despite the escalation in violence.

Scope of new laws

Courts have the power to issue orders that require perpetrators of coercive control to attend behaviour change programs or counselling. The maximum penalty for an offence of coercive control is 7 years imprisonment.

The law also provides police and the courts with additional powers to intervene and protect victims of domestic violence. Police can now issue provisional Apprehended Violence Orders (AVOs) to protect victims of domestic violence from coercive control before a full hearing is held. Breaching a AVO can result in a penalty of up to 2 years imprisonment or a fine of up to $5,500.

Criticisms of the new legislation

The new legislation has been criticised by some within the sector for not going far enough. The legislation will only cover intimate partner relationships, meaning family relationships are not included. In addition, it must be proved the perpetrator had an intention to control. It is not sufficient for a reasonable person to think that the behaviour was controlling, it must be established that the purpose of the behaviour was control, and this intention was consciously known to the perpetrator. For instance, if a perpetrator thought they had the right to withhold all financial control from their partner, then this is not an example of coercive control under the new legislation.

These limits have been criticised by many domestic violence groups who warn that the bill could actually be dangerous. Opponents have argued that the threshold to show that a perpetrator intended to cause harm is too high to meet in many cases. This gives rise to concerns that women will have a false belief that perpetrators will be prosecuted, only to find that they are turned away by the police and courts.

The NSW Government claims that the law has been designed to provide as much protection as possible to victims without resulting in the “over-criminalising” of behaviour that is broadly accepted within the community. In particular, the Government has indicated that it is sensitive to the potential for the legislation to increase the problem of over-representation of Indigenous people in jails.

Understanding Coercive Control Offences in NSW

Coercive control is certain conduct used to dominate and control a partner in an intimate relationship. New laws to criminalise this type of behaviour have been introduced in New South Wales and will commence in 2024, providing time for frontline services to be trained on how to identify coercive control and to raise community awareness.

If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice, please contact us on 0407 534 594 or email [email protected].

Need legal advice? Catron Simmons can help.