The Guardian: Criminalising coercive control may not make women and children safer, family violence advocates warn

Family violence victims and support groups have cautioned Australian jurisdictions against criminalising coercive control, as they fear the creation of new laws may not make women and children safer.

The parents of Hannah Clarke, who was murdered along with her three children in Queensland earlier this year, say that laws should be introduced that would prevent behaviour that is not physically violent, but can indicate that an offender is seeking to control a partner or former partner.

The behaviours can include isolation, deprivation and monitoring and controlling appearance, finances, or access to children, and are seen as a key indicator that a person may be progressing towards a physically violent attack.

Rowan Baxter murdered his estranged wife, Clarke, and his three children after exhibiting 17 different types of controlling behaviour in the years leading up to the attack, Clarke’s parents Lloyd and Sue say.

Starting in Queensland, the Clarkes want to increase education around these behaviours, and hope laws will be introduced that will criminalise them.Advertisement

This would mean police could arrest and charge an offender for behaviour which, in most states and territories, is currently not a crime.

“I’m sure it would have saved her,” Sue Clarke told Guardian Australia.

Family violence victims and the support sector agree that these behaviours are deeply damaging and misunderstood.

But fissures are emerging about how best to deal with them.

Lynda Memery, the manager of policy and campaigns at the Women’s Legal Service Victoria, said that coercive control should be included in the civil jurisdiction of all states and territories, meaning it could be relied upon when it came to victims seeking court orders protecting them from their abusers.

But she said there was little evidence that showed the introduction of coercive control offences in Tasmania, Scotland, Ireland and the UK had made women safer.

“In pretty much every state and territory, they are exploring this, as they should be as they have a responsibility to look and see if there’s something else we should be doing,” Memery said.

“On the surface it looks appealing, but then digging a little bit further … it’s not the right pathway to go down.

“It’s a complex social problem, family violence isn’t something that can be fixed by any one law.”

Two women who said they had experienced relationships with elements of coercive control also told Guardian Australia they did not feel the creation of a new criminal law would have protected them.

The women, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was clear there needed to be greater community awareness of what constituted coercive control, but said entrusting police to investigate and charge the men responsible was not the solution.

One victim, who is also a lawyer, said unfortunately women including those from Indigneous or marginalised backgrounds could not trust they would be treated equally in the criminal justice system.

“I care very deeply about what happens to women, but it’s clear that … there are so many women in our society who don’t receive the treatment from police and the courts that they should.”

Antoinette Braybrook, the chair of the national family violence prevention and legal services forum, said any state seeking to criminalise coercive control needed to first ensure they spoke to the women who were affected and the organisations that supported them.

The forum comprises 13 legal services for Indigenous people experiencing or at risk of family violence.

“There must be proper consultation with our communities and our … legal services who are the experts on the ground every day supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, particularly women and their children.”A decades-long crisis: the battle to fix Australia’s ‘broken’ family law systemRead more

Russell Hooper, the head of advocacy at No to Violence, which works to change the behaviour of male family violence offenders, said improving community, police, and sector knowledge of the behaviours which constitute coercive control had to take precedence on any legal changes.

He said the organisation was “agnostic” when it came to creating a criminal offence.

Tasmania is the only Australian state or territory which has specifically outlawed coercive control.

The New South Wales government announced last month that a parliamentary committee would hold a public inquiry into the issue.

discussion paper it released at the time noted that the NSW coroner’s court domestic violence death review team had found that in 111 of the 112 homicides that it reviewed between 10 March 2008 and 30 June 2016, the relationship was characterised by the abuser’s use of coercive and controlling behaviours towards the victim.

In Queensland, the opposition said it would criminalise the offence before the recent election, drawing a commitment from the Palaszczuk government to review its approach to coercive control, including its current inclusion in family violence legislation and an improvement to training for first responders.

A Palaszczuk government spokesman confirmed the proposal hadn’t changed since the government were reelected.

The Victorian government is working through the 227 recommendations handed down by its royal commission in 2015. The commission did not recommend the creation of a coercive control offence.

A bill is currently before the South Australia parliament to introduce a coercive control offence, and the Northern Territory, ACT and Western Australia governments are reportedly all monitoring developments in other jurisdictions.

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