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The Law Society has joined leading legal and family violence organisations in calling for the criminalisation of coercive control in NSW.

“We consider that there is a gap in the current law and that the best way to address coercive controlling behaviour is via a specific criminal offence, rather than further expanding domestic violence legislation,” The Law Society said in its submission to the NSW joint select committee currently considering the issue.

“The offence should be very tightly prescribed and tailored. As coercive control can cover a wide variety of conduct and motivations, a legislative response will necessarily need to be finely tuned.”

Coercive control is a type of domestic violence that manifests in psychological abuse via a pattern of acts: threats, manipulation, surveillance, isolation from friends and family, restricting access to finances and rigid rules with harsh consequences are common examples. It is a crime in some countries including the UK, France, and Ireland. LSJ published a cover story on the impacts of coercive control in its September 2020 issue.

The murder of Brisbane woman Hannah Clarke and her children in February 2020 by her ex-husband, following years of control and psychological abuse, catapulted the issue to national attention with calls for urgent law reform.

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Hannah Clarke with Rowan Baxter with their three children, Aayliah, 6, Laianah, 4, and Trey, 3.(Facebook)

NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman, when he established the inquiry last October, said “creating a coercive control offence would be a complex though potentially very worthwhile reform that could help prevent these offences”.

More than 100 legal centres, firms, and individuals have made submissions so far.

The Law Society’s submission noted any new law would need to be careful when drawing a line between criminal behaviour and “a relationship that may be dysfunctional, but not necessarily coercive”.

“There is also a risk of criminalising people with alcohol, drug issues, mental health issues – the vulnerable and disadvantaged who may not fit into the norms of relationships held by others,” the submission said. “The offence needs to capture the persistent nature of the offending, intentionally and persistently … specific intent is a very important safeguard.”

The most recent NSW Domestic Violence Death Review Team report, investigating murders between 2017 and 2019, found 77 of the 78 perpetrators used coercive control on their partner before killing them. Earlier research from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research in 2016 found women who experienced emotional abuse were 20 times more likely to subsequently suffer from physical violence.

The Death Review Team prepared a submission to the inquiry, revealing its current research found “of all domestic violence context intimate partner murder-suicides that occurred in New South Wales over the past 18 years there was evidence of physical violence prior to the fatal assault in less than half of those cases”.

Many submissions have made their support for new laws contingent on extensive training for police and the judiciary prior to their introduction. It is a call echoed by the Law Society of NSW.

“We consider that compulsory training for all police officers and the availability of comprehensive social services are vital components to the success of introducing a new offence,” the Law Society’s submission said.

“Criminal offences ordinarily address a particular act or instances of offending conduct, whereas a coercive control offence would involve a course of acts or events that only become criminal when taken together as a whole.”

Other Australian states have recently announced steps to criminalise coercive control. On February 17, the Queensland Government announced an intention to legislate against criminalise coercive control.