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As the final preparations are put in place for the introduction of laws criminalising coercive control in NSW from 1 July, LSJ considers the state’s preparedness for this significant measure, aimed at reducing the shocking incidence of domestic and family violence.

The NSW Government says coercive control is when “someone repeatedly hurts, scares or isolates another person to control them.” It is a repeated pattern of behaviour and includes physical or non-physical behaviours. Coercive control is being criminalised when it is targeted at a current or former intimate partner.  

The new offence carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison and follows a review of more than 112 intimate partner homicides, which found in all but one case, the relationship involved coercive and controlling behaviour by the abuser.    

Asked if NSW is ready for this important legislative change, Deputy CEO of Domestic Violence NSW, Elise Phillips says it is an important start in changing how we recognise and respond to incidents of domestic and family violence that are more complex and less obvious.

“It’s the first step and with anything new at this level it’s bound to take time to finesse,” she says.

“(B)ut as we’ve seen from the past few months, NSW and indeed Australia, are ready for more action against the escalating emergency of domestic and family violence.”

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Deputy CEO of Domestic Violence NSW, Elise Phillips

More to do

Liz Snell, Law Reform and Policy Co-ordinator at Women’s Legal Service NSW says much has been done, but there is still more to do.

“There has been considerable work undertaken to prepare for the commencement of the new coercive control offence in NSW, including training about coercive control and the new law (and) the launch of an important awareness raising campaign,” she says.

Snell also points to a pilot of co-locating specialist domestic violence workers in some police stations.

Phillips too supports the NSW Government’s education campaign, saying coercive control can be a highly complex manifestation of domestic and family violence.

“The campaign provides simple and effective education that will appeal to the general public and starts the conversation on what coercive control looks like,” she says. 

Not in my community

But Phillips concedes more needs to be done on the awareness front, pointing to the 2021 National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey.

“The survey found that while 91 per cent of respondents agree that violence against women is a problem, the majority of Australians don’t think violence against women occurs in all communities, including their own,” she says. 

“We need greater education about the prevalence, the signs, the ways to report and support and the ways to prevent domestic and family violence.”

The $38 million over four years announced by the NSW Government for primary prevention was a fraction of the $100 million DVNSW believes is needed.

Snell says a review of the Domestic Violence Safety Assessment tool, a document used by non-government service providers and some government agencies, is expected to be finalised soon.

“We need effective tools to help identify and respond to coercive control and promote a common language and understanding,” she says.

It’s for men to reflect

Asked if enough men are aware of what coercive control is and the fact it is being criminalised, Phillips says it is not about men being aware of a new criminal offence.

“[I]t’s about men being encouraged to discuss and reflect on what respectful relationships and healthy masculinity look like.

“Behavioural change should be motivated by respect – not the fear of a conviction. It’s also not just (a) conversation for men – it’s a pattern of behaviour that victim-survivors also need to be able to identify and seek support with.” 

Another area in need of work, according to Snell, is for all legal systems to be informed by gender-based violence and trauma, culturally safe, disability aware and LGBTIQA+ aware.

“[S]o victim-survivors can safely participate in proceedings and those who use gender-based violence, who are predominately men, are held accountable for their actions,” she says.

Snell says these are issues currently being considered by the Australian Law Reform Commission as part of its Justice Responses to Sexual Violence Inquiry.

Training and resources important

Phillips says although the training is comprehensive, there is an issue with resourcing.

“The police force themselves are under-resourced and with estimates that police receive a call out every two minutes about an incident of domestic and family violence, we need to ensure that our frontline services have the support they need to respond effectively,” she says. 

Training is important, says Snell, but not enough, on its own.

“It is vital that training undertaken by police, judicial officers, lawyers, barristers and others is regularly and independently evaluated to assess its effectiveness in changing and improving practice and responding to coercive control,” she says.

Snell believes accountability mechanisms are needed, so that the law continuously improves and the voices of victim-surivors are centred.

“The safety of women and children depend on this.”

Main image, still from NSW Government coercive control campaign, courtesy Sydney Times