Psychological abuse within a relationship to become a crime

Coercive control will be punishable by up to five years in prison under new legislation

A recent UK study found that coercive control was apparent in 92 per cent of domestic killings.

Psychological abuse and controlling behaviour within a relationship is to become a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.

The offence of "coercive control" is to be included in the forthcoming Domestic Violence Bill 2017 after being unexpectedly put forward by Minister of State for Justice David Stanton in the Seanad.

Coercive control has been recognised as a serious offence in UK law since 2015. The Irish legislation is primarily based the UK law.

It will allow prosecutions of people who create an ongoing threatening atmosphere within a relationship, even in the absence of violence or overt threats of violence.


The amendment states that a person commits an offence if they engage in “controlling or coercive” behaviour “likely to have a serious effect on a relevant person”.

A “relevant person” is defined as a spouse or someone in an “intimate and committed relationship with that other person.”

Conviction in the District Court will result a maximum sentence of one year, while conviction in the Circuit Court will carry up to five years in prison.

The amendment was one of a number of measures added to the Bill which have been deemed “hugely significant” by domestic violence campaigners who say they could save women’s lives.

Also included in the Bill is a measure which will increase prison sentences for people who assault or rape their partners.

Such crimes will still be prosecuted in the same way but the presence of an intimate relationship will now have to be considered an aggravating factor by the sentencing judge.

However, the provision does not apply to manslaughter offences. Last week, a report by Women’s Aid stated men who kill their partners are likely to get significantly less jail time than men who kill strangers.

Other amendments include clarifying the law when barring orders can be issued. It will also now be possible for a judge to issue a barring order even if the applicant does not live with their abuser.

The Bill is expected to pass before Christmas or early in January.

There have been concerns that an offence of coercive control may be too vague and difficult to prove. However, campaigners point to its effective use in the UK where 155 defendants were prosecuted for coercive control in 2016, with 59 found guilty.

Caitriona Gleeson of the domestic violence charity Safe Ireland said an EU study has shown about one third of Irish women have been in a psychologically-abusive relationship.

“When somebody is in a controlling, coercive relationship the perpetrator is effectively restricting and minimising the life potential of the individual. Everything from freedom of movement, freedom of agency to freedom to just feel safe is under threat when that behaviour is there,” she said.

Ms Gleeson said the new legislation will make a “huge difference to women’s rights and safety” in the home. “This will shift the culture from ‘it’s just a domestic’ to being a very serious offence.”

She said such behaviour is often an early warning sign of more serious offences including murder.

A recent UK study found that coercive control was apparent in 92 per cent of domestic killings.

Separately, it has been announced women who have been abused by an ex-partner and are seeking the lone parent’s allowance will no longer have to contact their abuser or provide evidence of efforts to seek maintenance from them.

Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty told the Dáil that "we believe women" and that once they present their story "that's the end of the road. There is no need for a piece of paper. There is no need for a barring order."


This year Harley Smith (22) was part of the first batch of men to be convicted of engaging in coercive control of a partner in the UK since it was made an offence in 2015.

During a two-year relationship, Smith, of Fareham, Hampshire, stopped Chelsea Bush from contacting her family, forced her to quit her job and restricted access to her bank account. He would also monitor her phone logs to check who she was calling.

“If I said no to him he would get in a strop and he would punch things,’ Ms Bush said after the court case. “He started abusing me. He cut me off from all my family and would not let me have any contact with anyone at all.”

She said he made her quit her job as a cleaner to beg with him on the streets. He also insisted on going with her to another job interview.

On one occasion he hit Ms Bush, leaving her with a black eye.

Smith was arrested after a visit by Ms Bush’s grandmothers who called the police after realising the extent of his controlling behaviour.

Smith was given a suspended sentence at Portsmouth Magistrates Court last August. He was also forbidden to have any contact with Ms Bush for two years.

Last year British authorities prosecuted 155 people for engaging in coercive control, of which 59 were found guilty. Of those, 28 were sent to prison.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times