At Watson Morris, we help and support clients in various situations. One of the areas we specialise in is controlling and coercive behaviour.

Sometimes, victims may struggle to notice controlling and coercive behaviour signs and so it may go unnoticed for some time. In this insight, we identify the most common signs of controlling and coercive behaviour and give you tips on how to navigate it should you find yourself in this position.

What is coercive control?

Coercive control is a pattern of behaviours that enables someone to exert power over another person through fear and control. Coercive control can be a criminal offence in the UK, in the circumstances described in section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 which states: 

(1) A person (A) commits an offence if—

(a) A repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards another person (B) that is controlling or coercive,

(b) at the time of the behaviour, A and B are personally connected,

(c) the behaviour has a serious effect on B, and

(d) A knows or ought to know that the behaviour will have a serious effect on B.

(2) A and B are “personally connected” if—

(a) A is in an intimate personal relationship with B, or

(b) A and B live together and—

  • they are members of the same family, or
  • they have previously been in an intimate personal relationship with each other.

Controlling and coercive behaviour signs in relationships

The term coercive control was first created by Evan Stark in order to explain that domestic violence is not just about physical abuse.

Signs of coercive control are many and varied and nowhere in the act are specific examples provided. Women’s Aid point to coercive control including psychological and/or emotional abuse, physical or sexual abuse, financial or economic abuse, harassment and stalking, and online or digital abuse. In her excellent article 20 Signs of Coercive Control That Reveal Manipulation in a Relationship – Learning Mind ( Janey Davies provides the following examples:

  1. Monitoring your activities with family and friends
  2. Constantly checking up on you
  3. Questioning your behaviour
  4. Setting time limits when you are out with friends
  5. Isolating you from family and friends
  6. Banning you from seeing certain people
  7. Stopping you from working in certain places
  8. Controlling how you spend your money
  9. Controlling how you dress or style your hair
  10. Telling you what you should eat
  11. Making disparaging comments about your figure
  12. Putting you down in public
  13. Repeatedly telling you that you’re worthless
  14. Allowing you no privacy
  15. Damaging your property
  16. Using children to report on you
  17. Getting angry at the slightest little thing
  18. You are constantly living in fear of upsetting them
  19. You have to do things in a particular way or they will get angry
  20. Your needs are not important and never discussed

Coercive behaviour and children

Interestingly, there is a defence under section 76 of the Serious Crimes Act 2015 that states if the behaviour relates to the control of a child this will not be regarded as coercive control.

This is a concern among family lawyers and other experts working in this area because they know only too well that the ability of one parent to exert coercive control over a child can go hand in hand with the coercive control of another parent. Coercive control can often be used by the manipulative partner to alienate the child from the other parent regardless of the long-term damage this will cause.

It appears that an opportunity was missed when the legislation was drafted which could have recognised the overlap between coercive control of one adult by another and parental alienation which relies on one parent being in control of the child or children. This can often be the method by which the abusive partner retains control over their ex-partner despite them no longer living together.

A client who is experiencing the most extreme examples of this behaviour recently showed me an article by Karen Woodall Coercive control in cases of alienation of children in divorce and separation – Karen Woodall . It is well worth reading. In my experience it is only possible to unpick the damage caused by perpetrators and rebuild the relationship between the victim of abuse and the alienated child through a combination of court litigation and orders which enable the family to work with the appropriate experts. This is not an option for many parents who lack the financial resources to take these steps.

Controlling and coercive behaviour and the law today

Despite the introduction of the Serious Crime Act 2017, prosecutions for the offence of coercive control are rare and convictions are infrequent. Women’s Aid report that between April 2020 and March 2021, there were just 1,403 defendants prosecuted for controlling or coercive behaviour.

The reality is that the police lack the resources needed to build a case of coercive control. This is not surprising because it is no easy task. Perpetrators are often highly intelligent, know exactly what they are doing and think strategically. Victims may not always present as coherently as the authorities would like which is hardly surprising given their lived experience. They may not remember everything which is relevant to their case. Often the victim is deliberately pushed beyond their ability to maintain their self-control, but if they react to their perpetrator they can be accused of the very behaviours they are the victim of. In this way, the victim is re-classed as the perpetrator, or the family categorised as involving allegations which flow both ways, which can be a difficult label to remove.

How can Watson Morris help?

What then can be done to help clients who are the victims of coercive control? At Watson Morris we are well experienced at dealing with clients in this area.

We can help and support clients by building their case for them before a complaint is made to the police. This can involve working with our life coaches who can help ensure that the client’s lived experiences are fully explored and all the relevant information recalled.

The effect of the coercive behaviour can also be fully explored which is an important component of any prosecution case. Working methodically in this way a chronology of all relevant events can be prepared which is an extremely valuable tool when building a case for prosecution.

We can also help in cases involving the coercive control of children and parental alienation and advise clients of the potential legal remedies available to them to rebuild the parent /child relationship. For further information or to book a free consultation please visit   Home – Watson Morris Family Law

Written by Peter Morris

June 2, 2023

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