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Domestic Abuse – Controlling and coercive behaviour in family relationships

What are the recent changes to the law?

Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2105 came into effect earlier this year and created a new offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in intimate or family relationships.

The offence carries a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment, a fine or both and sends a clear message that this type of abuse is taken seriously and punishable by law.

What does this mean?

This offence sends a clear message that this form of domestic abuse can constitute a serious offence particularly in light of the violation of trust it represents and will provide better protection to individuals experiencing repeated or continuous domestic abuse. It sets out the importance of recognising the harm caused by coercion or control and that a repeated pattern of abuse can be more harmful than a single incident of domestic violence.

What is controlling or coercive behaviour?

This type of behaviour does not relate to a single incident but is a pattern of behaviour that takes place over time with an individual exerting power, control or coercion over another. The types of behaviour associated with coercion or control may or may not constitute a criminal offence in their own right. It is important to remember that the presence of such behaviour does not mean that no other offence has been committed or cannot be charged. Such behaviour might include:-

  • Isolating a person from their friends or family.
  • Monitoring their time.
  • Monitoring a person via online communication tools.
  • Taking control of aspects of their everyday life such as where they can go, who they can see, what to wear and when they can sleep.
  • Financial abuse including control of finances such as only allowing a person a limited allowance.
  • Threats to hurt or kill.
  • Threats to a child.
  • Threats to reveal or publish private information.
  • Repeatedly putting them down such as telling them they are worthless.

For the offence to apply it must take place “repeatedly or continuously” and the pattern of behaviour has to have a serious effect on the victim. Also the perpetrator and victim have to be personally connected when the incidents took place. That means that they were in an intimate or family relationship (whether they lived together or not) or they lived together and were family members or they lived together and had previously been in an intimate personal relationship. It is not necessary for the two parties to be in a cohabiting relationship or to be married when the offence is reported as long as the incidents took place when they were personally connected.

Impact within family proceedings

At Clarke Willmott, there is increasing recognition that clients can be experiencing coercive and controlling behaviour from their partner. Increasingly we are recognising evidence of such coercive psychological behaviour which had not been recognised as domestic abuse. It can particularly involve the use of social media such as text messages and emails which can be very powerful.

The harm caused by coercion or control over a sustained period of time can be more harmful than a single act of domestic violence but it is not so easy to prove particularly when the abuse involves the perpetrator isolating a victim from family and friends.

What help is available?

Support can include making applications for Non Molestation and Occupation Orders which can provide protection from violence and harassment and regulate occupation of the family home, if necessary. Further options would be to make formal complaints to the police requesting that they investigate allegations of coercion and control. The police are now compelled to take action and can no longer dismiss this type of behaviour as a domestic even if there is no evidence of physical abuse.

It is important to recognise that this type of behaviour can be sustained over a long period of time and is not instantly recognisable by assessors. However it can have devastating psychological effects on those on the receiving end. This recent change to the law now recognises that assistance is required to deal with such behaviours and it can no longer be dismissed as a “domestic”

If you have a query or would like to discuss your own circumstances, please call us on 0800 422 0123 or contact us online.


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Rayner Grice


Rayner advises on the issues that arise for an individual following the breakdown of a relationship in relation to divorce/civil partnership dissolution, their financial affairs and their children.
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