Is coercive control a crime?

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In 2016 a man called Lance Hart shot his wife Claire and daughter Charlotte outside a swimming pool in Lincolnshire, England, before turning his shotgun on himself. Some of the media coverage of the murder was sympathetic towards Hart, reporting neighbours’ descriptions of him as a “very, very nice guy” who had been “upset following the breakdown of his marriage”. However, Hart’s surviving sons Luke and Ryan had a very different story to tell. Lance Hart had been a controlling and bullying man, terrorising his family for decades. His sons had managed to move their mother and their sister out of the family home just a few days before Hart found and killed them. For years, Lance Hart’s family had been subjected to an often hidden type of domestic abuse, known as coercive control.

What is coercive control?

While there is no universally agreed definition, coercive control is understood as a behaviour or a pattern of behaviours aimed at restricting an individual’s liberty through intimidation, humiliation, or threats. Examples of coercive control include limiting the victim’s access to money, or isolating them from family and friends. This type of abuse may not be easily visible from the outside.

Coercive control is described as a non-physical form of abuse, but it can be a predictor of serious violence: in a review of 358 homicides in the UK, it was found that controlling or obsessive behaviours were present in 92% to 94% of cases. In Northern Ireland, about one in 10 people report having experienced coercive or controlling behaviours from a partner since the age of 16. Recent changes in legislation in the UK and the Republic of Ireland mean that Northern Ireland is currently the only jurisdiction on these islands where coercive control is not a criminal offence.

What does the law say?

The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (also known as the Istanbul Convention) is an international treaty aiming to eradicate gender violence. Article 33 of the Convention specifically calls for the criminalisation of psychological abuse.

Article 33 of the Istanbul Convention: ‘Parties shall take the necessary legislative or other measures to ensure that the intentional conduct of seriously impairing a person’s psychological integrity through coercion or threats is criminalised’.

In England and Wales, the offence of ‘coercive or controlling behaviours’ was first introduced in section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015. The Act criminalises coercive control between partners, ex-partners, or family members, as long as the victim and perpetrator are living together at the time of the offence. However, the Act does not include children under 16 and their parents or guardians. Abuse between former partners not living together is also excluded, as it may fall under the remit of stalking or harassment legislation.

In the Republic of Ireland, a similar offence was introduced in section 39 of the Domestic Violence Act 2018. The offence only applies to current or former partners rather than other family members, but is otherwise similar to the equivalent offence in England and Wales. Indeed, Irish legislators viewed the encouraging prosecution rates for coercive control in England and Wales as evidence of the effectiveness of the new offence.

In Scotland, on the other hand, a different approach has been taken. The introduction of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 has updated the definition of domestic violence to include both physical and non-physical abuse. The Act’s definition of psychological abuse is largely consistent with the offence of coercive or controlling behaviour in England and Wales. However, the Act does not apply to family members, but only to partners or ex-partners. Unlike the Act in England and Wales, there is no requirement for victim and perpetrator to be living together. The Scottish law allows for multiple patterns of abuse to be considered together, and some have argued that this makes it more robust than its equivalent in England and Wales.

What about Northern Ireland?

In 2016 the Department of Justice started a consultation on the possibility of introducing a new offence of coercive control in Northern Ireland. Responses were overwhelmingly positive, and the then Minister of Justice announced her intention to publish a draft bill by the beginning of 2017. However, the breakdown of power sharing has since left Northern Ireland without a functioning legislative assembly, and the law has been delayed indefinitely.

Meanwhile, a draft Domestic Abuse Bill is currently being considered in Westminster. The Bill would introduce a statutory definition of domestic abuse that includes coercive and controlling behaviours. The Bill only applies to England and Wales, but some MPs have argued that it should extend also to Northern Ireland, so that individuals throughout the UK can enjoy similar protections. The UK Government has argued against the change, as this would impinge on Northern Ireland’s devolved powers. However, on 14th June the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill published a report arguing that the Bill should be extended to Northern Ireland, but only until Northern Ireland enacts its own legislation. The UK Government may now need to weigh the right of Northern Ireland’s residents to determine their own laws with its commitment to ensure that all UK jurisdictions comply with the Istanbul Convention.