More than 90 per cent of women victim-survivors of coercive control believe it should be criminalised in Australia, according to a new Monash University study.
The Monash University led study, the largest global study of victim-survivors views on the criminalisation of coercive control, reveals 91 per cent of female victim-survivors surveyed believe coercive control should be a criminal offence.
While 87.5 per cent of victim-survivors overall surveyed supported criminalisation.
Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre Director Professor Kate Fitz-Gibbon with Dr Ellen Reeves, and Professors Sandra Walklate and Silke Meyer’s work significantly advances the national evidence-base on victim-survivors views on the criminalisation of coercive control.
“Victim-survivors resoundingly support the introduction of a separate offence of coercive control,” Professor Fitz-Gibbon said.
“This is a significant finding given that several state and territory governments are currently grappling with what reforms to adopt to improve responses in this area.”
Coercive control is a term used to capture the long-term, ongoing nature of a wide range of forms of intimate partner violence which are not exclusively physical and can pervade an individual’s daily life with devastating impact.
Victim-survivors who responded to the national survey identified improving community awareness about coercive control and non-physical forms of intimate partner violence as the main benefits of criminalising this form of abusive behaviour.
“Critically, victim-survivors emphasised that the benefits of criminalisation often sat outside of the realm of policing and court responses,” Professor Fitz-Gibbon said.
“They emphasised that increased community awareness through criminalisation has the potential to enhance referral pathways and informal support systems for victim-survivors.”
While First Nations victim-survivors also showed significant support for the criminalisation of coercive control, only 31 per cent believed such a reform would improve victim-survivor safety. Many raised specific concerns for possible unintended impacts on already over-criminalised populations.
Despite the in-principle support for the criminalisation of coercive control, victim-survivors surveyed said they would be reluctant to provide evidence in court to support prosecutions.
Similarly, many felt that a criminal offence would not have improved safety outcomes for them, particularly due to continued barriers in evidencing non-physical forms of abuse. One victim-survivor said: “it’s easy to show photos of bruises and broken bones. How do you explain a broken brain?”
“There has been increased attention in recent years of the ways in which the criminal court system can traumatise victim-survivors of domestic, family and sexual violence,” Professor Fitz-Gibbon said.
“While in principle the majority of victim-survivors in this study supported criminalisation of coercive control, they were also acutely aware of the barriers and risks of engaging with the justice system.”
The survey findings highlight that where coercive control is criminalised, a substantial investment in police and court resources and specialist training is required to mitigate the risk of retraumatisation, misidentification, and other adverse outcomes for victim-survivors.
“While many victim-survivors are in favour of criminalisation, victim-survivors’ frequently cited concerns about misidentification serve as a reminder that we should act with caution,” Dr Reeves.
This is particularly relevant to jurisdictions, such as New South Wales and Queensland, that are currently in the process of implementing a stand alone offence. Where a coercive control offence is implemented, the study highlights the importance of ongoing monitoring of the impacts for victim-survivors, particularly those from marginalised and diverse communities.
“Many participants cited experiences of abusers using existing laws against them and held concerns that criminalisation may give these abusers further ammunition if not implemented safely,” Dr Reeves said.
The study involved an anonymous five-week national online survey of 1,261 Australian victim-survivors’ views on the criminalisation of coercive control between May to June 2021.