How to Prove Coercive Control in Court – When the Law’s Not Quite Caught Up

Controlling husband monitoring wife's electronic devices - an example of coercive control

Coercive control can be experienced by anyone and manifests in a variety of ways. Often subtle, this kind of patterned abuse can be difficult to identify – and for this reason, the controlling behaviours associated with coercive control weren’t always recognised as a form of domestic violence. 

Today coercive control is more widely understood and there is a push for Australian laws to reflect the seriousness of this form of intimate partner abuse. Unfortunately, Queensland has been slow to amend their laws. This makes it difficult for survivors to know where they stand. 

However, if you suspect you’re experiencing coercive control in your relationship, there is help available. Here is what we know about coercive control and how we can help you prove it for the future safety of you and your children.

What is the legal definition of coercive control?

As defined in NSW, “Coercive control is a form of domestic abuse that involves patterns of behaviour which have the cumulative effect of denying victim-survivors their autonomy and independence.”

There isn’t just one agreed definition of coercive control as perpetrators can use a range of different tactics. However, this form of abuse involves a pattern of intimidating behaviour by the perpetrator that causes the victim to feel isolated and fearful. Coercive control is repeated and ongoing.

What are the main signs of coercive control?

Abusive tactics can be quite broad and complex with victims experiencing coercive control in a range of different ways. How it manifests for one victim can be vastly different for another.

Man threatening his partner. Lowering self-esteem and controlling your autonomy are signs of coercive control.
Photo by RDNE Stock project: on Pexels.

Recognised signs of coercive control include

  • Isolating you from friends and family by removing access to transportation and restricting you from going to certain places.
  • Constant monitoring through surveillance devices in your everyday life.
  • Gaslighting, a form of psychological abuse that distorts your reality, making you feel self-doubt and confusion.
  • Lowering your self-esteem through name-calling or insults.
  • Removing financial autonomy by limiting your access to funds, monitoring your spending, or putting you on a strict budget.
  • Reinforcing traditional gender roles by coercing you to fully take over homemaking duties.
  • Controlling your bodily autonomy through regulating how much you eat, sleep, or take medication.
  • Controlling you by threatening to harm you, your children, or themselves.

Is coercive control considered evidence of domestic violence?

Coercive control often underpins domestic violence relationships. It is a form of domestic violence.

It’s a common misconception that domestic violence always involves the act of physical abuse. In fact, perpetrators can use a range of behaviours to exercise power and control over their victim, leaving them intimidated, isolated and afraid.

Man taking money from wallet - financial abuse is a form of coercive control
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels

Domestic violence can include

  • Social isolation
  • Financial abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Psychological abuse
  • Verbal abuse
  • Technology-based abuse
  • Stalking and surveillance
  • Sexual abuse

Coercive control can involve one or more of these behaviours in a repeated manner.

Do both men and women experience coercive control?

Anyone can experience coercive control regardless of gender or sexuality. However, victims of this kind of abuse are predominantly women in heterosexual relationships.

Is coercive control illegal in Queensland?

Unfortunately, coercive control is not illegal in Queensland. However, NSW has such laws in place that criminalise coercive control and Queensland hopes to soon follow suit.

And there is progress being made. Earlier this year, the Domestic and Family Violence Protection (Combating Coercive Control) and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2023 was passed. This amendment bill is not yet in force, but it is expected to commence towards the end of 2023.

The goal of this amendment bill is to strengthen and expand the definitions of domestic violence to include the repetitive nature of coercive control. It modernises the offence of unlawful stalking in the Criminal Code to better reflect the tactics and intricacies of the crime. It also seeks to make coercive control itself a criminal offence.

Documenting coercive control for the divorce process

In Australia, we follow the no fault divorce principle, which means someone does not need to do something wrong in order to file for divorce. However, proving your relationship involved coercive control is still important.

The Court will always act in the best interests of your children. If proof of coercive control shows that they will be unsafe with your abusive ex, the Court will favour you in terms of custody.

Proof of coercive control can also affect your property settlement, child support and spousal maintenance, where the abuse has affected finances and financial attitudes. It is also helpful for applying for domestic violence orders (DVO).

So how can you prove coercive control? This kind of intimate partner abuse is an ongoing pattern of behaviour so documenting individual incidents of repeated abuse over time is important.

You can document in the following ways

  • logging the series of incidents
  • evidence of threats
  • financial evidence that shows you were restricted
  • evidence of damage to property or injury to your person
  • medical records
  • evidence that your freedom was impacted by abuse
  • witness evidence from friends and family including a noted change in your behaviour or communication and contact with them

How Divorce Hub can help

By its nature, coercive control can leave victims feeling confused about what is happening to them and afraid to seek help. But support is available.

We can help you get the right documents and evidence and advise you through proceedings. Our Divorce Coaching services provide emotional support and empower you to plan for your future.

Know where you stand – get started here.

Or to speak with the Divorce Hub team, contact us today.

The purpose of this article is to provide general information and does not constitute legal advice. Please get in touch to discuss your specific circumstances.