Increasingly we are seeing and hearing media reporting on Coercive Control, including some cases featuring household names, but what is Coercive Control? Here our Mary McMorland, Family Law Specialist, explains what is meant by Coercive control and the steps to take if you, or someone you know is a victim.
“Partner abuse is not primarily about what men do to women; it’s about what men keep women from doing for themselves” Evan Stark, Professor, Emeritus Rutgers University, 25th May 2010.
Section 39 of the Domestic Violence Act 2018 created the offence of coercive control. A person commits an offence where he or she knowingly and persistently engages in behaviours that
- Is controlling or coercive.
- Has a serious effect on a relevant person.
- A reasonable person would consider likely to have a serious effect on a relevant person.
Controlling or coercive behaviour for the purposes of the act. Is behaviour which has a serious effect on the victim. The behaviour is designed to put the victim in fear of violence being perpetrated against them or another loved one. Or behaviour which may cause distress that impacts on their every day lives. It effectively is psychological and emotional abuse. The victim may not have any physical scars, but their mental, emotional and social lives will be very damaged.
Gender based and domestic violence is ultimately about control within a relationship. However, the perpetrator may not use physical strength to gain or maintain this control, they use other means and use other behaviours to control the victim. The allegations may not be of violence but of a pattern of behaviours which are abusive.
It can be quite difficult to spot signs of coercive control. However, there are some patterns or examples which victims and victims’ families may observe. This is a non-exhaustive list that includes: –
- Isolating the victim from their families or friends.
- Financial control, taking the victims bank cards, limiting their financial security by making them leave work.
- Controlling their means of communication for example monitoring their text messages or social media.
- Being overly critical of the victim’s appearance and telling them what to wear. It may begin with small gestures like, I prefer when you wear jeans and not dresses etc. To not allowing their partner to choose their clothes at all.
- Being over vigilant and following the victims’ movements going to and from work, college dropping children to school etc.
- The perpetrator may make false or vexatious claims against the victim.
- Being critical of their parenting calling them an unfit parent.
The victim may begin to doubt their own abilities to function and think rationally. They may believe that they are losing their own mental capabilities. A lot of perpetrators use “Gaslighting” or psychological manipulation. This is all designed to reduce the victim’s confidence and make them feel they are at fault.
Coercive control is a crime, so you should contact the Gardai. In November 2020, the first person was convicted of coercive control. This conviction was heralded as a culture change, that allowed the Courts to view a pattern of behaviour as abusive. The Gardai and the Courts are taking this offence very seriously.
I would advise anyone who believes they are a victim of domestic abuse, to do the following to help assist the Court.
- to keep a diary of incidences,
- keep a record of actions and situations that put you in fear or distress.
- Bank statements or telephone bills, social media posts that give examples of the controlling behaviour.
- Have family or friends that may be able to provide evidence or witness accounts actions by the perpetrator. All of this can help assist the Court.
The Courts will look at the overall global relationship, it is not helpful to look at actions or behaviours in isolation. Some of the actions carried out on the victim may appear as petty and not very serious. However, when this is viewed in totality, over a period of time, by the Court it can fully present that the perpetrator is guilty of coercive control. Indeed, it is these insidious manipulative actions that the perpetrator relies on to convince the victim that they are responsible. As a society legal practitioners and Judges have learned to examine and see this behaviour and pattern for what it is, abuse.
Your solicitor can advise you on local organisations and counsellors who may be able to help you deal with the emotional and psychological trauma. Your solicitor can advise you on your rights and your legal remedies, they can make an application under the domestic violence legislation for a barring order, safety order or protection order. If there are children involved your solicitor can help you to come to an arrangement regarding maintenance and/or access for the children. They will be there to help you gain control of your life.
I often see people who come to me for family law advice that have only just realised they are victims of controlling or coercive behaviour. Indeed, sometimes it can take a third party like your solicitor to point out that the relationship or patterns within the relationship are above and beyond what is reasonable and appropriate. In most instance it is with the benefit of hindsight when a person has left a relationship that they an see that they were in fact a victim of domestic abuse.
If something does not feel right, if you are feeling isolated from your friends and family. If you feel that you are becoming increasingly reliant or submissive to your partner. You should seek help. There are many organisations, that offer counselling and advice to victims of domestic violence, here are links to some of these organisations.