An Overview of Coercive Control Laws in the UK

UK flag, gavel, and legal books symbolising British law and the Coercive Control Laws discussion.

In today’s society, recognising and addressing the often hidden dangers of coercive control is important. While it may not manifest as physical scars, its deep emotional impact can be lifelong. The UK has progressively acknowledged this form of abuse, making substantial legal advances to combat it. This article delves into the UK’s coercive control laws, tracing its history and exploring the pivotal Domestic Abuse Act 2021. Knowledge, after all, is our strongest defence against such abuse.

What is Coercive Control?

Coercive control is a complex and insidious form of domestic abuse that goes beyond traditional understandings of what constitutes abusive behaviour. Unlike the visible scars left by physical violence, the wounds caused by coercive control are largely mental, often hidden but deeply damaging.

This form of abuse is characterised by a pattern of behaviour over time, which seeks to take away the victim’s sense of liberty and autonomy. The offender exerts power, dominance, and manipulates the victim through various means.

Understanding the Impact of Coercive Control

This can include isolating them from friends and family, controlling their money, dictating their daily routines, or using threats and intimidation to instil fear.

It’s vital to understand that coercive control is not just a single act. It’s a series of actions, remarks, and manipulations that create an environment where the victim feels trapped. The victims, over time, may begin to doubt their thoughts, feelings, and reality due to the constant manipulative tactics. This extended state of stress and fear can have serious consequences on the victim’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

The Evolution of Domestic Abuse Recognition

The understanding and recognition of coercive control as a serious form of abuse have come a long way. For a long time, the legal system mainly looks at physical violence, often over looking the awful nature of non physical abuse. Victims of such abuse were left vulnerable, with their experiences overlooked due to a lack of legal protection and understanding.

The UK’s Pioneering Role in Addressing Coercive Control

It was the UK that took the lead in understanding and acting upon the damaging effects of coercive control. Through the efforts of campaigners, survivors’ voices were amplified, leading to a change in the legal landscape. These advocates brought to light the dire need for legal reform that accurately shows the broad spectrum of actions causing long-term mental harm. Their continued efforts ensured that victims of such abuse were no longer left in the shadows, but were instead offered the protection they deserved.

Introducing the Domestic Abuse Act 2021

Having laid a foundation with the creation of coercive control laws, the UK took a huge step forward with the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. This act not only strengthened the protections for victims but also increased the understanding of domestic abuse within the legal framework.

Defining Domestic Abuse

The act provides a statutory definition of domestic abuse, stating that abuse isn’t solely physical violence. It made clear that abuse can also manifest as emotional, controlling, coercive, and economic abuse. This broader definition acknowledges the multifaceted nature of abuse and serves as a guide for both the public and professionals in understanding and fighting it.

Evidential Considerations in the Act

Understanding the evidence is crucial for correctly addressing and prosecuting instances of coercive control. Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act (SCA) 2015, which is amplified under the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, sets precise criteria for what constitutes controlling or coercive behaviour.

Key Criteria:

  • Engagement in Behaviour: The suspect (A) must repeatedly or continuously exhibit controlling or coercive behaviour towards another person (B).
  • Personal Connection: At the time of the behaviour, both parties, A and B, should be personally connected.
  • Serious Effect on the Victim: The actions should have a pronounced impact on B.
  • Awareness of the Impact: A should be aware, or ought to have known, that their actions would severely affect B.

To put into context, many times this behaviour may seem innocent if looked at in isolation. However, the impact and the pattern of behaviour within the context of the relationship are what makes it coercive control. The prosecutor’s task is to discern whether this pattern induces fear of violence or results in serious alarm or distress that affects the victim’s daily activities.

Specific Manifestations of Coercive Control

Coercive control often displays in varied, often subtle, forms that can be easily overlooked. Recognising the specific manifestations is pivotal in making sure victims receive appropriate help and abusers face justice.

Examples of Controlling or Coercive Behaviour:

  • Isolation from Loved Ones: Keeping a person away from friends and family.
  • Deprivation of Basic Needs: Limiting access to essential needs and services.
  • Monitoring and Surveillance: Observing a person’s activities through online communication tools or using spyware.
  • Manipulation Through Digital Mediums: Using social media or smart devices to control, upset, or emotionally manipulate the victim.
  • Controlling Everyday Life: Dictating where they can go, whom they can meet, their attire, and their sleeping patterns.
  • Economic Abuse: Controlling finances, withholding wages, or using economic means to create dependency.
  • Threats and Intimidation: Using threats of physical harm, hurting a family pet, or revealing sensitive personal information to exert control.
  • Sexual Coercion: Enforcing or denying sexual acts without consent or using reproductive control against the victim’s wishes.

The Concept of “Personally Connected”

In the realm of coercive control laws, especially under Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, understanding what “personally connected” means legally is important. This term outlines the relationships where prosecutable actions can occur.

Criteria for Being “Personally Connected”:

  • Marital and Civil Relationships: This includes individuals currently or previously married or in a civil partnership.
  • Engagements and Intentions: Those who’ve committed to marriage or a civil partnership, regardless of current status.
  • Intimate Personal Relationships: Not strictly defined in statutes, this term covers relationships with emotional intimacy, beyond just sexual relationships. It can involve dating partners or even those simply sharing a bed.

Updates and Changes Over Time

A significant update was introduced by Section 68 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. Before 5 April 2023, the definition was slimmer, emphasising close relationships mixed with cohabitation or familial ties. The 2021 changes shifted from living together to the relationship’s nature, increasing the law’s scope.

This broader perspective post-2021 seeks to capture relationships like:

  • Shared Parental Ties: Individuals who’ve had a parental relationship with the same child.
  • Relatives: This refers to various familial connections.

It’s important to note that the changes aren’t backward looking and apply only to coercive controlling behaviour instances post-5 April 2023. As the line between typical relationship dynamics and unlawful ones can be subtle, such clear legal definitions become pivotal in getting justice.

The Impact on the Victim: Defining “Serious Effect”

Understanding coercive control laws, especially in the UK, requires learning what constitutes a “serious effect” on the victim. Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 specifies this criterion. For an offence to be considered under this law, the behaviour’s impact on the victim is a cornerstone.

Two Ways to Determine “Serious Effect”:

  • Fear of Violence: If the victim fears violence on at least two separate occasions due to the perpetrator’s actions.
  • Substantial Adverse Effect: This is assessed by the significant alarm and upset that the perpetrator’s action causes, leading to a huge negative impact on the victim’s daily activities.

Recognising the Signs: Substantial Adverse Effects

Recognising a pattern of abuse becomes easier when understanding the different ways it can show. Prosecutors and legal professionals often look for patterns and actions that have a profound and harmful effect on the victim’s life.

Examples of substantial adverse effects include:

  • Physical or mental health deterioration: This includes signs of anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues.
  • Social isolation: The victim might pull back from usual social activities or avoid physical exercise due to fear.
  • Safety measures at home: This can involve installing CCTV or other security systems to protect oneself or one’s children.
  • Self-harm: Any signs of physical harm caused to oneself.
  • Changes in dietary habits: This could range from under eating to over eating.
  • Alterations in work: Victims might change their working patterns, their work status, or even the routes they take to work to avoid the perpetrator.

It’s important to see these signs in the context of the wider relationship and consider the cumulative impact of multiple actions or actions. By doing so, professionals can better determine if coercive control laws have been violated.

Evidential Considerations in Coercive Control Cases

When building a case around coercive control laws, the evidential considerations play a crucial role in understanding the nature of the offence. Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 (SCA 2015) is foundational in this regard. The act lays out several conditions that must be met for an offence to be seen as controlling or coercive behaviour.

Establishing Behaviour Patterns:

  • It’s important to understand that a pattern of controlling or coercive behaviour (CCB) can exist long before an incident is reported.
  • Isolated incidents might seem harmless, especially when considered outside the broader context of the relationship.
  • Evaluating the cumulative impact of CCB is important to determine if there’s a fear of violence or serious alarm causing a substantial negative effect on daily activities.

Recognising Specific Behaviours:

  • Isolation Tactics: Including keeping the person away from friends and family.
  • Deprivation: Denying access to basic needs or specialist services.
  • Digital Surveillance: Monitoring online communication tools, using spyware, or using digital systems to control or upset the victim.
  • Economic Manipulation: Controlling money, wages, benefits, or causing coerced debt.
  • Physical Threats: Including threats to hurt or kill, assault, or harm a child.
  • Sexual Coercion: This might involve forced pregnancies, denial of birth control, or forcing victims into unwanted medical procedures.
  • Psychological Manipulation: Using substances to create dependency, revealing private information, or enforcing degrading rules.

It’s important to note that this is not an exhaustive list, and the specifics of each case can vary significantly based on the individuals involved.

Understanding the difference between a typical relationship dynamic and unlawful behaviour is a challenge. Not all decisions or deals in a relationship signify coercion. The coercive control law aims to show the difference between mutual decisions in relationships and ones coming from an imbalance of power.

Considering Relationship Dynamics:

  • Many relationships have situations where one person decides for the other or where one partner takes charge. However, when such decisions become rigid rules leading to adverse consequences for the victim, it becomes a sign of an abusive relationship.
  • The fear of these consequences, even if they haven’t been used yet, holds significant weight in these considerations.

With this understanding, it’s easier to recognise when a relationship dynamic crosses the line from mutual decision making to coercive control.

Our Thoughts

The growth of the coercive control laws in the UK, highlighted by the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021, shows a profound recognition of the varied facets of abuse beyond just the physical. Yet, while these legal steps show a promising move in the right direction, at the Criminal Injuries Helpline, we firmly believe that further focus on early help is vital. Addressing the signs and symptoms of coercive control at its nascent stages can prevent the abuse from escalating into physical violence. Our commitment is unwavering: to champion knowledge, offer support to victims, and advocate for measures that curb this insidious form of abuse before it strengthens.


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