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What are controlling behaviour and coercive control?

View profile for Philip Hoddell
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Legislation designed to protect victims in abusive relationships has already led to much comment in the press. We are also seeing more and more claims of it being made in divorce proceedings. But what exactly is controlling or coercive behaviour?

The Serious Crime Act of 2015 defines an offence being committed if someone repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards another person they are personally connected to in a controlling or coercive manner, which has a serious effect on the victim. The perpetrator knows or ought to know that the behaviour will have such an effect. The crime is punishable by up to 5 years’ imprisonment in the crown court.

The purpose of the legislation was to protect victims in abusive relationships. According to the government, it is aimed at behaviour which takes place “repeatedly or continuously”. The emphasis is on behaviour which has a “serious effect” on the victim.

The government’s own statutory guidelines contain a useful definition of what sort of behaviour is covered by this legislation.

What is controlling behaviour?

Controlling behaviour is defined as “a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour”.

What is coercive behaviour?

Coercive behaviour is defined as “a continuing act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish or frighten their victim”.

Some relationships are very abusive and this act is quite rightly designed to protect victims.

Problems arise though when allegations are made in divorce proceedings to try to obtain a tactical advantage, rather than needing genuine protection. Such behaviour detracts resources from genuine cases. The legislation is not designed to criminalise the behaviour of couples who have just fallen out, or who no longer want to be together.

A recently reported case from Yorkshire highlights what happens when couples, the police and the courts do not have a clear understanding of what the legislation is supposed to be about.

Valerie Sanders was arrested when four police vehicles turned up at her house and accused her of behaving in a coercive and controlling way to her estranged husband Michael. She was arrested, locked in a cell, interviewed and then charged. It took 14 months for the case to get to trial, only for the charges to be dropped at the last moment.

What was Valerie’s crime?

According to press reports, Valerie asked her bodybuilding husband of 4 years to help clean up around the house a bit more and not go to the gym so often. It is said she used to leave notes asking him to carry out chores. Because he was in the gym so much trying to build the perfect physique, she felt that she was left to do everything at home.

At just 4 feet 10, Valerie explained that she thought it was unlikely that anything she did was going to have a serious effect on her husband. The more that we read into the case, the more it appears likely that this was just a couple who were not well suited and who fell out of love with one another.

Statistics show that since the legislation was brought into force, 7,000 people have been arrested and 1,150 people have been charged. Only 235 have been convicted of an offence!  There clearly needs to be far more education given to everyone around this topic if genuine victims are to be helped. 

If you need any legal advice regarding your relationship, please call our expert family and divorce lawyers for a free, no obligation, 15 minute chat. I am a divorce and separation lawyer based in our Colchester office and can be contacted on 01206 217320 or