Debate is continuing to grow over whether or not Australia's legal systems should recognise coercive control, with NSW Labor Party proposing a bill last month to criminalise coercive control, that if passed, would see offenders enforced with a ten-year maximum penalty.
Following the killing of Hannah Clark and her three children, and murder of Preethi Reddy, both of which incidents took place earlier this year, the topic of coercive control is receiving much-needed attention. With new research showing an escalation in domestic violence during COVID-19, the time to act is now.
Commonly referred to as 'intimate terrorism', coercive control relates to any form of behaviours whereby a person exhibits control over another person.
These behaviours - which can range from monitoring and restricting a person's communications and movements, to threatening to harm a person and their loved ones and inflicting physical/sexual abuse - have a devastating impact on a person's financial, social and psychological wellbeing, and can often result in the loss of independence and self-worth.
Unfortunately, this form of abuse is often hard for victims to recognise and many victims find it difficult to leave these toxic relationships.
With research revealing coercive control to be the most common risk factor present prior to a domestic violence homicide, and a key high-risk factor for sexual, domestic and family violence, it's time Australia began to recognise the impact of this form of abuse.
Simply put, not enough.
In a survey of 15,000 women, the Australian Institute of Criminology found that almost six per cent of women had experienced coercive control during the pandemic, many for the first time.
As a precursor to physically violent behaviour, coercive control must be criminalised. Addressing these issues before they lead to extreme physical harm could save lives.
At present, coercive control has not been enacted as a separate offence in any other state or territory in Australia, nor has it been integrated into existing domestic and family violence offences. With domestic violence on the rise in Australia, we believe it's time that all Australian states and territories criminalised coercive control.
While Tasmania is currently the only jurisdiction to criminalise some coercive control behaviours (mainly in relation to financial and emotional abuse), research has found the use of these offences to be limited.
South Australia is currently working to implement a law that would criminalise coercive control, and that if passed, would hold the toughest penalties for offenders.
"The way in which we are handling domestic abuse isn't working because one woman a week is still being killed within a domestic setting," said Advance SA MP John Darley, who has introduced the bill, in an interview with ABC.
"It is widely accepted that coercive controlling behaviour is a precursor to physical abuse and homicide — deaths could be prevented if there is intervention at the time coercive control is presented," he said.
"We need this changed because what we are doing at the moment has failed the women who have died this year alone."
New South Wales
After Labour introduced a new bill to New South Wales parliament in September, and as pressure from domestic violence protest groups continues to mount, NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman has promised to fast-track a review by the NSW Department of Justice into laws that criminalise what is known as coercive control.
"Introducing a new offence for coercive control in NSW would be a highly complex but potentially very worthwhile reform and one which absolutely merits thorough research and consultation," Mr Speakman told the AFR.
After State Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington announced that coercive control would be a crime under LNP, Queensland Labor Party has responded, with the Palaszczuk government issuing an election promise to tackle coercive control on "several fronts".
Releasing a statement on Sunday night, Minister for the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence Di Farmer said that while Queensland's current domestic and family violence legislation refer to coercive control, "it is clearly insufficient."
Currently, Victoria is non-committed to criminalising coercive control.
Victorian Minister for Women Gabrielle Williams said the state's priority was implementing the 227 recommendations from the Royal Commission into Family Violence, backed by a $2.9bn investment to keep women and children safe.
ACT Labor has said that it is committed to preventing coercive control and all other forms of domestic and family violence, and that it supports criminalising coercive control.
If re-elected, ACT Labor will work with the ACT Director of Prosecutions, ACT Victims of Crimes Commissioner and other key stakeholders to determine if further legislation is required.
WA Prevention of Family and Domestic Violence Minister Simone McGurk said the government continued to monitor the evaluation of such laws in other jurisdictions and engage with stakeholders on the issue.
In November, the WA government introduced to parliament its first specific family violence criminal offence, for persistent family violence, recognising a pattern of abuse.
NT Attorney-General Natasha Fyles said her office had sought advice from her department about coercive control.
Those opposed to the criminalisation of coercive control in Australia argue that there are too many limits and risks involved, and believe the success of the law reform relies too heavily on the victim's willingness and ability to assist police in investigations.
However, other countries that have criminalised coercive control, such as the United Kingdom and Ireland, have implemented laws in conjunction with extensive training and consultation, that ensures all professionals involved - police, prosecutors, support workers, responders - understand coercive control and how to appropriately respond.
When introducing the legislation in the United Kingdom in 2015, Theresa May, Home Secretary at the time, said:
"Coercive control can be tantamount to torture. In many cases, dominance over the victim develops and escalates over the years until the perpetrator has complete control. Putting a foot wrong can result in violent outbursts, with victims living in fear for their lives."
In 2017-2018, a total of 9,052 coercive control offences were recorded, up from 4,246 in the period of 2016-2017.
Other countries that have criminalised coercive control include Ireland (2018), where the introduction of laws was positively covered in the media, and Scotland (2019), where, in the first three months of the new law reforms, 190 cases were recorded, with 13 convictions.
In order to shift the attitudes surrounding domestic violence in Australia, coercive control needs to be seen in its detrimental entirety. In order for this to happen, Australian jurisdictions must criminalise coercive control.
Are Media, along with lobby groups around Australia, are calling for immediate government action to criminalise coercive control.
Spearheaded by Are Media's The Australian Women's Weekly and marie claire, the campaign will ensure this is front-of-mind with Australian women through its powerhouse of leading women's brands and will help influence the legislative change.
Are Media will also encourage Australians to sign a petition to show support of the issue. Click here to sign.
If you recognise any of these signs within your relationship, or suspect a friend might be in trouble, please call 1800 RESPECT.
- PuzzlesThe Australian Women's Weekly February Issue Online Entry
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