What is coercive control?

Jan 30, 2022

“It wasn’t abuse because he never hit me.”

By the time Hannah Clarke realised her life was in danger, it was too late. The 31-year-old Brisbane mother was murdered alongside her three children by her estranged husband in February 2020.

As details emerged of what Hannah and her children had lived through before their horrific deaths, one term describing the behaviour of her perpetrator attained national prominence. Hannah’s estranged husband wasn’t physically violent towards her, but he had subjected her to one the most dangerous aspects of domestic and family violence – coercive control.

Coercive control refers to a repeated pattern of behaviour to establish control over another person, inciting fear and intimidation. It is a form of domestic abuse that is prevalent in Australia.

A survey conducted by the Australian Institute of Criminology in 2020 found that nearly 6 per cent of women experienced coercive control in the previous three months, and 11.6 percent suffered from at least one form of emotionally abusive, harassing or controlling behaviour.

Recognising the signs

It is important to know that not all domestic and family abuse is physical. Coercive control does not describe any singular type of incident and can be harder to identify. It can appear in many forms, including:

  • criticism and name-calling

  • dictating what you wear or what you eat

  • limiting your access to money and other resources

  • monitoring or restricting use of electronic devices

  • repeated calls and messages

  • threats and intimidation

  • restricting activity such as grocery shopping or school pick-ups

  • isolating you from your family, friends or workplace

  • stalking

  • gaslighting and more.

These behaviours can happen gradually and are designed to slowly isolate a person from their friends and family, rendering the victim completely dependent on their partner for financial support, housing, food and connection to others. In essence, it involves “micro-managing the victim’s daily life in an identifiable pattern”.

Is coercive control illegal?

Coercive control is currently not a crime in Australia. Every state has different laws around domestic violence, and Tasmania is currently the only jurisdiction in the country that has laws directly addressing coercive and controlling behaviours.

Following Hannah’s murder, her parents Sue and Lloyd Clarke have been fighting for coercive control laws in Queensland. The couple, who were named Queensland’s 2022 Australians of the Year for their work in advocating for domestic and family violence, are pushing for coercive control to be made a crime.

Progress has been made, with the Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce filing a report to Queensland parliament in December 2020 that included a recommendation for a standalone offence of coercive control to carry a maximum penalty of 14 years in jail. According to the report, this legislation should be introduced to parliament by 2023.

Sue and Lloyed Clarke believe Hannah could have been saved if coercive control was criminalised.

How to support victims of coercive control

The more these issues are talked about in Australia, the better we can recognise the signs and help victims, survivors and their families.

Thankfully, there are vital resources, like The Handy Guide, which assists and connects women and families in Queensland – but of course, there is always more work to do.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic or family violence, there are many support services available:

  • If it is an emergency, contact Queensland Police Service (000) for immediate response. QPS have an automatic referral to a counsellor who will support women and advise them of the support services available.

  • DV Connect (1800 811 811) is an organisation that provides crisis support and counselling, as well as a women’s refuge service assisting women and children affected by a domestic violence incident to obtain placement into crisis care.

  • 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) is a telephone helpline for friends and family to report if someone they know is experiencing domestic violence.

  • Relationships Australia QLD (1300 364 277) is an organisation that provides relationship support and advice to individuals and families across Queensland.

  • Mensline (1800 041 612) is a national telephone and online support, information and referral service for men.

  • Immigrant Women’s Support Service (07 3846 3490) offers support to immigrant and refugee women from non-English speaking backgrounds and their children who have experienced domestic and/or sexual violence.

  • Women’s Legal Service (1800 957 957) and Legal Aid QLD (1300 65 11 88) provides free legal advice and legal support services to victims of domestic violence, including in relation to applications for a domestic violence order, children’s Court matters and Family Law matters generally