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Clarke Willmott welcomes TV soap’s coercive control plotline

The divorce and family team at Clarke Willmott has praised a new storyline on TV’s Emmerdale for exploring the issue of controlling and coercive behaviour in a difficult domestic abuse storyline.

The ITV soap is set to tackle the nature of coercive control in a plotline involving Belle Dingle and her new husband Tom King.

Since exchanging their vows, Tom has begun to engage in gaslighting, undermining, and humiliating Belle in a series of distressing incidents.

Rayner Grice, who heads our family team in Birmingham and our Birmingham office said “In 2015, the Serious Crime Act established a groundbreaking offence addressing controlling or coercive behaviour within intimate relationships.

This marked a significant milestone for victims of domestic abuse, acknowledging, for the first time, that controlling behaviour can be equally, if not more, detrimental than physical violence.

Since the law was introduced the Court and the Police have increasingly begun to take this behaviour very seriously and appreciates the impact this behaviour can have, not only on the sufferers but children that they may share.”

Rayner, also says such behaviour often manifests itself subtly, unfolding over an extended period. “As is often the case, Emmerdale’s Belle, may be unaware of what is happening to her as the behaviour is beginning so subtly that it is not obvious and it is now showing as becoming a normal part of her relationship with Tom.”

When it comes to warning signs, Rayner says perpetrators may try to exploit vulnerabilities to maintain control or try to prevent the victim from seeking help.

Examples we see as family lawyers can include a victim’s fear of losing children should they make a report, with the perpetrator having tried to convince them that this is the case.

Financial abuse is another feature of controlling or coercive behaviour which can form a pattern of abuse alongside physical abuse or in many instances is an independent form of abuse. 

Control and access to finances can also be a feature, for instance, an older woman who has not worked through the relationship, with no access to the family finance and no pension in her own right.

Also, the individual who may have given up their career to care for the children may find themselves in a position where they are even more financially reliant on abusive partners.”

Such behaviour can constitute a criminal offence, punishable by a maximum 5 years imprisonment but early legal advice is crucial, particularly where arrangements for children are concerned as any decisions on arrangements taken early on can heavily influence how a court will determine final arrangements.

Coercive control is defined as a “persistent series of acts, involving assault, threats, humiliation, intimidation, or other forms of abuse, employed to harm, punish, or instil fear in the victim.”

This is such a subtle and distressing form of abuse that it is important that legal advisers have the skills to be able to identify the signs to help guide the sufferer through the process and to also be able to signpost to support agencies to assist.

Emmerdale has been working with outside partners including domestic abuse charities New Beginnings Peer Support and Refuge to develop the storyline.

Clarke Willmott holds webinar on controlling and coercive behaviour

In 2023, Rayner also hosted a webinar on controlling and coercive behaviour which covered how the family court deals with cases involving domestic abuse, the impact of Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act and what lawyers should do if they think domestic abuse is happening during a divorce and/or relationship breakdown.

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For more information about the services Rayner and her team offer, please visit our family law service page or get in touch 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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