The Northern Territory Government could soon criminalise coercive control abuse, as domestic violence rates climb across the Territory.
- New laws are being considered as part of a domestic violence review
- The NT has the highest rate of domestic violence-related offences in the nation
- The Criminal Lawyers Association says current laws are enough, and the focus should be on education
Coercive control can include a range of emotional, psychological and financial abuse, such as isolating someone from their friends and family, humiliating or insulting them.
It can also include controlling and monitoring their movements or finances.
Territory Families Minister Kate Worden said the government was looking at developing new domestic violence offences that would make the Territory the second Australian jurisdiction to specifically criminalise coercive control abuse.
“We need to make sure our legislation incorporates all types of evidence, as it is such a complex piece of work.
“It is imperative that the Northern Territory justice system provides a safe and supportive environment for victims and survivors of domestic and family violence to enable the courts to hold perpetrators to account.”
Dawn House Women and Children’s Shelter executive officer Susan Crane said almost every one of their clients had experienced this type of emotional, financial or psychological abuse, and it was a key factor in domestic violence.
She said the shelter had been “absolutely bombarded” by the demand for accommodation and support for domestic violence victims in Darwin.
The Territory has the nation’s highest victimisation rate for selected family and domestic violence-related offences, according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Recent NT Police data indicates there was a 23 per cent spike in domestic violence-related assault during 2020.
What are the risks?
Central Australian Women’s Legal Service managing principal solicitor Janet Taylor said new legislation could help victims who were often falling through “the cracks of our current criminal and civil law framework”.
She said the concept of coercive control was not well understood by the community, including within the legal sector.
“A significant benefit of criminalising coercive control is the more formal recognition of the danger of this predominantly non-physical form of abuse,” Ms Taylor said.
But Ms Taylor said the introduction of new legislation would not come without objections, particularly as the abuse was hard to define and some could suggest it could lead to intrusion into normal relationships.
“There is legitimate concern that our clients will be unable to meet the higher standard of proof for coercive control offences,” she said.
“There is a risk they may be re-traumatised through the criminal process.”
Ms Taylor said some critics had argued that new offences could also end up being used against victims of family violence, and that police could mistakenly identify them as perpetrators.
“Currently, we see misunderstandings of coercive control playing a significant role in the criminalisation of women who physically resist or retaliate,” she said.
But Ms Taylor said many of those risks and barriers already existed and were particularly pronounced for Aboriginal and culturally and linguistically diverse women.
“We can mitigate that risk with robust training, education and support for police, prosecution and the judiciary,’ Ms Taylor said.
“There is no doubt that the capacity of the NT justice system to identify and respond to coercive control must be improved. Whether or not this requires criminalisation is unclear, however the potential should be fully explored.”
Criminal Lawyers Association of the NT president Marty Aust said current legislation was sufficient to cover the scope of behaviours that fall within a range of conduct amounting to coercive control, and that a focus should instead be put on education.
“Many offences of breaching domestic violence orders in the NT are the result of non-violent interactions between persons with entrenched social or medical issues, including alcohol addiction and homelessness,” he said.
Mr Aust said there could be unforeseen consequences “when lines are unduly blurred between societal and criminal issues”.
“Community education around socially acceptable relationships and available supports to persons and families of persons at risk of, or experiencing, coercive control, should be a key concern when engaging in any discussion around the issue,” he said.
How has this legislation been used in the past?
Tasmania is the only Australian jurisdiction that has laws directly addressing coercive and controlling behaviours.
No charges were laid in the state in the three years after the laws were introduced in 2004, and only 189 had been laid by the end of 2019, according to Tasmania’s Women’s Legal Service.
Similar laws are under consideration in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria, after campaigning by women’s safety groups.
Professor Marilyn McMahon is the deputy dean of Deakin University’s School of Law. She has studied coercive control legislation both in Australia and overseas.
“It is really disturbing that the biggest predictor of intimate partner homicide — the biggest risk factor — is not a previous history of physical violence within the relationship but a history of coercive controlling behaviour,” she said.
Professor McMahon said the small number of prosecutions in Tasmania was a result of limits in education and community awareness campaigns.
She said policy makers in the NT would have a complex challenge implementing the legislation.
Professor McMahon said one key consideration in the NT would be the impact on Indigenous women and their experiences of abuse, and whether the law would be helpful to them.
Another consideration would be the impact on already high incarceration rates, especially among Indigenous males.
“It really will be an issue for the parliamentary drafts people to work hard on developing something that is appropriate … that will effectively offer protections without inappropriately criminalising other behaviour,” Professor McMahon said.
Attorney General Selena Uibo said options around criminalising coercive control abuse were being considered as part of a review of the NT’s Domestic and Family Violence Act 2007, which is expected to be released for public consultation mid-2021.