Governments have been urged to tread carefully if criminalising coercive control.
Governments have been urged to tread carefully if criminalising coercive control.

Criminalising coercive control could put victims at risk

In the wake of recent calls to criminalise coercive control, governments have been urged to tread carefully in order to protect victims of domestic and family violence.

The parents of Hannah Clarke, who was murdered along with her three children by her violent husband earlier this year, have joined a chorus of those supporting making coercive control a crime.

Sue and Lloyd Clarke say their daughter and grandchildren might not have had the same horrific fate if they'd known more about coercive control, or if there were stronger laws to target the behaviour.

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Coercive control is a term used to describe a range of abusive behaviours which aren't always physical.

They include financial abuse, isolating someone from their family and friends, threats to hurt or kill them and surveillance.

The UK introduced laws which recognised coercive control as a crime in 2015.

While many agree coercive control is a strong indicator a perpetrator of domestic and family violence could go on to seriously assault or even kill their partner, most of Australia does not recognise it as a criminal offence.

Sunny Kids general manager Kathleen Hope says she supports criminalising coercive control, but there needs to be clear processes in place. Photo: Patrick Woods
Sunny Kids general manager Kathleen Hope says she supports criminalising coercive control, but there needs to be clear processes in place. Photo: Patrick Woods

Sunny Kids general manager Kathleen Hope said while she supported the act of making coercive control a criminal offence, there would need to be strong and clear systems in place to protect victims.

"The onus of responsibility would obviously fall to the victim to evidence what that coercive control has looked like, and yet it can happen over decades," Ms Hope said.

"There's just so many unanswered worries.

"It's so insidious. (Coercive control) is something you can live with for 30 years and still struggle to articulate."

Ms Hope said if coercive control was criminalised, governments should first outline a clear process of how someone would be charged.

She said there would need to be appropriately trained police and support staff to help victims identify and record instances of coercive control, which would then need to have evidence and weight in court.

"This is more than a political agenda and we need to really think about what harm could be caused if we don't identify the process," Ms Hope said.

Shannon Fentiman swears in as Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, Minister for Women and Minister for the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence. Photo: Dan Peled
Shannon Fentiman swears in as Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, Minister for Women and Minister for the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence. Photo: Dan Peled

In the lead up to the state election, Labor promised to "tackle" coercive control by working with legal experts, survivors, domestic violence service providers and the Domestic Violence Prevention Council to ensure new laws addressed coercive control on several fronts.

Newly-appointed Minister for Women and Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence, Shannon Fentiman, said the State Government had "led the nation" in tackling domestic and family violence.

"We announced before the recent state election we will legislate against coercive control as a form of domestic and family violence," she said.

"To determine the form of this legalisation we will consult with survivors, domestic violence service providers, legal experts and the community.

"This is such an important issue and it is important that we get it right.

"Since 2015 the Palaszczuk Government has invested over half a billion dollars towards eliminating domestic and family violence and we will continue to provide support to the sector."

Wednesday marks the beginning of this year's 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, with many Sunshine Coast services jumping on board to support the cause.

Ms Hope said acknowledging and committing to tackle coercive control was a great first step in addressing the insidious behaviour, which she said was present in every abusive household.

"If you think about the fact that women will often consider leaving many times before actually leaving, one of the main reasons that they stay is because they love the person," she said.

"Imagine how controlled you have to be, how manipulated you have to be, to be experiencing all of these behaviours … and still feel so much love and attachment to that person.

"I don't think you can separate coercive control from any other act of domestic violence."


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