An increase of new clients reporting to be victims of coercive control could lead to the domestic abuse featuring more heavily in future separation proceedings, according to a leading Sydney family lawyer.
Laura Donnelly, Director of Holmes Donnelly & Co Solicitors, said the growing disclosure was likely being reflected in other family law offices across Australia as victims took strength from a growing national push to criminalise the abuse.
“It is a big shift for victims who previously may have kept the abuse private or not even recognised it was happening,” Ms Donnelly said.
“However, should this growing recognition continue to rise, it will likely impact the makeup of many final orders, particularly in relation to parenting arrangements.”
Ms Donnelly said previous public debates about coercive control had failed to manifest in family law offices.
“This time around victims seem newly-educated and emboldened and perhaps want to make the perpetrator recognise their behaviour and the impact it has on relationships and family dynamics,” she said.
Coercive control is labelled a ‘hidden’ problem as research shows comparatively few victims will report to police what is the most common risk factor in the lead up to domestic violence homicides.
However, Ms Donnelly said young leaders like Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins, the high-profile #MeToo movement and talk of criminalising coercive control appeared to be cutting through to victims.
Tasmania is currently the only Australian state or territory that has criminalised elements of coercive behaviour. However, South Australia and New South Wales are considering similar moves and Queensland recently announced the formation of an independent coercive control taskforce.
A recent NSW Council of Social Service report found 60 per cent of domestic violence victims do not report the behaviour to police.
Ms Donnelly said some women may have simply decided to act on the abuse – but in a legal practice and not a police station.
“Family lawyers have known for a long time – while it is hard to measure the scope of domestic violence – that official crime statistics are masking a greater problem. Some women have told me they are daunted by what is involved in going through the criminal process.
“They want, however, for their family law settlement to take into account the conduct of the other party and how, on a practical level, communication and interaction between them can best be managed moving forward.”
Ms Donnelly said coercive control behaviour has been difficult to establish previously as examples considered in isolation might be dismissed as being misinterpreted or melodramatic.
“However, these behaviours are insidious, manipulative and often difficult for third parties to see or acknowledge,” she said.
“Historically, clients, who may be victims of coercive control, have said things like “but he’s never hit me”. Now they are identifying the patterns of other forms of abuse in their own relationships and are more openly putting them on the table.
“Behaviours like ongoing and consistent threats, intimidation and humiliation. Or unreasonably restricting access to and monitoring communication, constant “put downs” and undermining relationships with children and extended family and friends.”
“In a relationship where they persist over a length of time, where there may be a power imbalance or one party is heavily reliant on another, they can be dangerous and damaging.”
Reasons for reliance can range from financial dependence and immigration reasons to a fear, if they choose to leave the relationship, of having children spend unsupervised time with the other parent.
“This fear is real for many victims and many stay as a means of protecting children.
“But maybe victims now, seeing the recognition of these abusive behaviours societally, have some hope that disclosing them in a legal setting will help them get through the undoubtedly difficult period of separation.
“And also lead to a longer term more positive future for themselves and their children and more constructive post-separation discussions.”
On 21 April in SA a father murdered his nine-month-old baby daughter during an unsupervised visitation following a history of domestic violence with a relationship with her mother.
Ms Donnelly believes pandemic-related lockdown measures, where women have been isolated and confined with and unable to easily escape an abuser, may also be contributing to the increased disclosure.