Domestic violence law must include ‘coercive control’ , say advocates

Seminar in Dublin hears 155 defendants prosecuted under legislation in UK last year

Coercive control is defined as a pattern of sustained emotional and psychological abuse of a partner through threats, intimidation, control and restrictions of liberty, coercive control has been recognised as a serious offence in UK law since 2015. Photograph: iStock

Domestic violence legislation currently before the Oireachtas will fail to respond to the "lived terror" of women and children if it fails to include a specific offence of "coercive control", a seminar in Dublin has heard.

Safe Ireland, a national agency working on domestic violence in Ireland, called for the inclusion of the offence in the Domestic Violence Bill.

Defined as a pattern of sustained emotional and psychological abuse of a partner through threats, intimidation, control and restrictions of liberty, coercive control has been recognised as a serious offence in UK law since 2015.

At a seminar in Croke Park in Dublin, delegates working with those abused in a domestic context heard that coercive control was too often viewed as the “soft” form of abuse.


However, survivors consistently referred to emotional and psychological abuse as being “the most pernicious and damaging to their physical and mental health and safety”.

Chief executive of Safe Ireland, Sharon O’Halloran, said that unless coercive control was recognised as a specific offence , the proposed legislation here would “abjectly fail to pick up on the real crime against women’s liberty that domestic violence is”.

“Denial is the most dangerous aspect of abuse,” Ms O’Halloran said.

“If we deny the seriousness of coercive control. If we don’t name it as a crime that can be prosecuted in its own right in domestic violence, we are doing a criminal disservice to women and children living everyday in houses of terrorising control.”

The organisation said evidence had shown that “controlling, obsessive and intimidating” behaviours were present in the overwhelming number of domestic violence incidences.

“UK research shows that controlling behaviour was present in 92 per cent of domestic killings,” Ms O’Halloran said.

Almost one in three (31 per cent or over 470,000) Irish women have experienced some form of psychological violence by a partner, according to an EU-wide study in 2014.

Safe Ireland noted that at the Committee Stage debate in the Seanad last week, Minister for State at the Department of Justice David Stanton had indicated the Government's reticence to legislating for coercive control as a separate offence.

He said there was concern about whether it would be possible to prosecute for it as a specific offence.

Safe Ireland said it would question, however, how not legislating for it would ensure it could be prosecuted.

“Without legislating for coercive control specifically in domestic violence, women will continue to say that unless they are bruised the justice system is not going to take them seriously as victims of a brutalizing crime, and perpetrators will continue to walk away from that crime,” Ms O’Halloran said.

In a recently published study of domestic homicide reviews in the UK, it was seen that control was present in 92 per cent of domestic killings, obsession in 94 per cent and isolation from family and friends in 78 per cent.

Last year, 155 defendants were prosecutive for coercive control in the UK, including the first charge of “pure” coercive control, without any accompanying charges for physical assault.

Minister of State for Justice David Stanton told the recent committee stage hearing on the Bill that he had “no ideological difficulty with defining domestic violence or creating an offence of coercive violence”.

He said he did, however, “ have concerns in case it is detrimental to victims”.

Effective legislation needed to be enforceable, he said.

“Most instances of domestic violence take place in private. The difficulties of obtaining evidence of non-physical behaviour, and the harm it causes, to satisfy a criminal standard of proof, that it is beyond reasonable doubt, in order to secure a conviction, are obvious.”

The Minister noted official data on the impact of this offence in the UK would become available in the autumn.

“UK media reports from last August indicate that since the offence of coercive control was introduced, there have been more than 20,000 prosecutions for domestic violence and research has found that since its introduction, 202 people have been charged with the offence of coercive control.”

There was little information on successful prosecutions, he said.

The Government is also planning to observe developments in Scotland, where in March this year, the Scottish Parliament published domestic violence legislation which defines abusive behaviour as including psychological abuse.