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Can we Legislate Coercive Control Away?

The term coercive control, defined as a ‘pattern of domination that includes tactics to isolate, degrade, exploit and control’ a person, ‘as well as to frighten them or hurt them physically’ was originally developed by Professor Evan Stark, a sociologist and forensic social worker. He described it as ‘a liberty crime’ and ‘intimate terrorism.’ It is a frightening predictor of intimate partner homicide, overwhelmingly committed by men whose relationships were characterised by coercive and controlling behaviours.

In 2004, the Tasmanian Government passed the Family Violence Act 2004 (Tas) introducing two new criminal offences – economic abuse (section 8) and emotional abuse (section 9) while in November 2022, the NSW Parliament passed the Crimes Legislation Amendment (coercive Control) Act 2022. In April 2023, the Office for Women in South Australia announced proposed legislation to criminalise coercive control in that state. The state government has undertaken to consult on, develop and introduce legislation to criminalise coercive control.

Responding to similar legislation in England and Wales, Tolmie (2018) raises a voice of caution. ‘Applying the concept of coercive control to particular sets of facts may require a breadth of evidence and complexity of analysis that the criminal justice system is not currently well equipped to provide. Some of the risks involved in enacting an offence of coercive control are that it could be used in a manner that minimizes IPV, invalidates the victim’s experiences or, worst of all, recasts their resistance to abuse as abuse.’

Similar concerns have been raised in this country by First Nations women who warn that a coercive control offence could lead to further criminalisation of First Nations victim-survivors of violence. Writing in The Conversation, Buxton-Namisnyk et al (2022) note an ongoing problem with racism resulting in police misidentifying victim-survivors as perpetrators. Her research demonstrated that almost a third of First Nations women killed in domestic violence homicides had previously been identified as perpetrators with these women often described as ‘uncooperative’ or ‘unwilling’ to work with police. These descriptors then became justification for a decision not to provide protection.

Misidentification can leave women vulnerable to increased  child protection intervention and threat of child removal, limit access to support services and allow perpetrators to use legal systems to intimidate and cause financial harm and inflict further abuse.

A singular legal approach to address coercive control is unlikely to achieve the desired outcome and for some may make the situation infinitely worse. This is a complex matter that requires all parts of our social system to co-operate in seeking a rich, intelligent solution to save the  lives of those who suffer.


Tolmie, J (2018) Coercive control: To criminalize or not to criminalize? Criminology & Criminal Justice Vol. 18(1) 50–66

Buxton-Namisnyk, E. , Gibson, A. and  MacGillivray, P. Unintended, but not unanticipated: coercive control laws will disadvantage First Nations women The Conversation August 26, 2022

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