Coercive Control – A Violation of Human Rights

Blog post written by Laura Seebohm, Director of Women and Criminal Justice Services at Changing Lives, Gateshead and on the Women’s Breakout Board of Trustees

At Changing Lives we support hundreds of women and girls who come to us for support each week. Last year we consulted as many as possible to find out how effectively our services meet their needs. Unsurprisingly – and overwhelmingly – they told us that domestic abuse is the most pressing factor. Interestingly we found that they rarely mentioned physical violence. What they described was the persistent intimidation and fear which dominates every aspect of their lives.

One of the women we talked to described her situation as being like a puppet. Every action she took was a string being pulled by her partner. When she eventually sought refuge, the strings were cut and she was then expected to stand right back up and live a life free from abuse. But she described feeling like a ‘crumpled heap’, so low in confidence and autonomy that she was unable to cope. Many of the women we spoke to tell us they continue to live under the rules and controls imposed by an abusive partner long after they have left the relationship.

Existing responses missing the point

It became clear to us that existing responses to domestic abuse have often been missing the point. Resources are targeted at those victims assessed as ‘high risk’ of physical harm, and support is short term and focused on enhancing safety. Whilst prevention of serious harm is clearly imperative and these have been in many cases successful, it fails to address the long term harm caused by fear and control. So we see extremely high levels of repeat victimisation either by the same perpetrator or serial abusive relationships. Without re-building resilience and recovery the ‘puppet’ analogy remains true.

The point is that our Criminal Justice System has really only recognised domestic abuse when there has been an incident of physical violence perpetrated by a partner or ex-partner. In fact, the overwhelming experience of survivors is what is described as Coercive Control – a term developed by Evan Stark to help us understand domestic abuse as more than ‘a fight’. He talks about a pattern of behaviour which seeks to take away the victim’s liberty and freedom, ‘to strip away their sense of self’.

‘Violence may or may not be used alongside a range of other tactics such as isolation, degradation, mind-games, and the micro-regulation of everyday life such as monitoring phone calls, dress, food consumption, social activity etc). The perpetrator creates a world in which the victim is constantly monitored and criticised; every move is checked against an unpredictable, ever-changing, unknowable ‘rule-book’. The rules are based on the perpetrator’s stereotyped view of how his partner should behave towards him, rules about how she cooks, house-keeps, mothers, performs sexually and socialises’. (

Response by police

In 2014 an HMIC report ‘Everyone’s Business’ highlighted this point; that police forces across the UK were not responding satisfactorily to victims of domestic abuse and have little understanding of the reality and context of how it is manifested. A Solace report in the same year found that 95% of domestic abuse survivors experience coercive control.

This message has been quickly and decisively taken on board and on 29th December the Serious Crimes Act 2015 section 76 added coercive control into UK criminal law. The amendment to the Crimes Act was actually made earlier in the year, but only implemented once training and guidelines were put in place for Police and Crown Prosecution Service, as there is no doubt it will pose a significant challenge for the Police. How it is policed is still somewhat unknown until it has been put to the test.

Home Office guidance says the controlling or coercive behaviour must take place ‘repeatedly and continuously’. The behaviour must have a serious effect on the victim, causing them to fear violence will be used against them or causing serious distress. The perpetrator ‘ought to know’ that the behaviours would have a serious effect on the victim. The offence will carry a maximum of 5 years’ imprisonment, a fine or both.

A clear understanding of coercive control needed

Getting the Police, Social Services and other agencies to understand the dynamics of coercive control is no small task. We still regularly hear professionals who struggle to get past the question “why doesn’t she just leave?” Without a genuine understanding of coercive control, the law will simply not be implemented.

The law expects our services to develop a sophisticated understanding of complex social dynamics as integral to public protection. In practice, this means picking up signs much more subtle than the bruises and cuts which have previously dominated criminal incidents. Different questions will need to be asked. If a Police Officer asks ‘what happened’ they will get very little evidence for this new law. If they ask what a week in someone’s live is like they will get a very different picture. It will increasingly be unacceptable to remove children from a mother’s care due to failure to protect from domestic abuse.

A culture shift is taking place

A culture shift is already taking place with Police and Crime Commissioners across the country, placing the needs of victims and protection of the most vulnerable as priority. The police are gradually being asked to move away from their traditional professional boundaries towards an understanding of safeguarding, gender and victimology informing operational practice. In the case of domestic abuse, this means moving towards close collaboration with feminist women’s organisations – not obvious partnerships. However, it is when professions dare to reach out to the margins of their traditional boundaries and integrate with other disciplines that we see innovation and change. Never is this more pertinent than for the new law of coercive control.

By adding coercive control to criminal law, the UK is adopting international best practice. It redresses and validates the experience of hundreds of victims of domestic abuse and treats the assault on autonomy with the seriousness it deserves. Evan Stark describes coercive control as a violation against human rights; as such it is a crime against not only the individual but the state and this new law takes us some way to treat it as such.

The text from this blog post first appeared in Standard Issue Magazine

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