In 2015, England began criminalizing a new form of domestic abuse: coercive and controlling behaviour. The criminal offence of coercive control was introduced in England as another means of protecting individuals from intimate partner violence. Coercive control refers to a purposeful pattern of behavior used to intimidate, control and instil fear in an intimate relationship. Much like the crime of sexual assault, stalking and harassment, coercive and controlling behavior is a form of violence which affects mainly women and vulnerable people.
In this post, I will explore the crime of coercive control and identify whether or not it is an offence that should be added to the Canadian Criminal Code. Perhaps it would surprise many to know that controlling and coercive behavior in itself is not crime in Canada.
Canada does criminalize harassment, assault, sexual assault, and stalking. However, nowhere in the Code do the words “coercive” or “controlling behaviour” appear. Does this mean partners in intimate relationships in Canada are less protected than their English counterparts?
In England, coercive and controlling behaviour is seen as a different type of crime unlike stalking and harassment. It involves bullying, psychological harm and the denial of finances in a domestic partnership. It is a type of abuse that is non-physical and non-injurious. Coercive control is about the psychological abuse that can occur in an intimate relationship. It is not one single incident, but rather the accumulation of every little incident which itself amasses to one larger form of abuse. Laura Richards, founder of Paladin, England’s National Stalking Advocacy Service, strongly pushed for this offence to be criminalize in England because she wanted the laws to reflect the reality of domestic violence. Richards says that domestic abuse is all about power and control. This type of abuse exemplifies one partner’s desire to have power over and control their partner. Usually, this type of abuse occurs in heterosexual relationships when men abuse women, although that is not always the case. Coercive and controlling behaviour can look innocent from the outside, perhaps something as simple as one partner asking to see the other’s phone, but inside the relationship it can be a type of psychological control akin to imprisonment.
Coercive control can include inhibiting when a victim can go out or who they go out with, restricting access to finances, restricting time spent alone with friends or family, restrictions on how to dress and how to style hair and make-up, email and online surveillance, and completely isolating a victim from engaging in any social or professional activities. Coercive control may also include gas lighting, which is when the abuser pretends that they never behaved abusively or turn it on the victim and accuse them of being the abuser. If you feel scared that your partner might violently explode, or if you are constantly walking on eggshells around your partner even if your partner has never been physically violent, then you might be experiencing coercive control. Controlling and coercive behaviour can have severe psychological effects on victims. According to Richards, psychological abuse and forced isolation as a result of coercive control can lead to depression, anxiety, self-harm, addiction and even suicide.
The ability to prove coercive and controlling behaviour is where the difficulty arises with this crime. In order to get a conviction, there must be proof that the person has committed the crime. Physical violence is difficult enough to prove, never mind the types of abuse that do not leave marks behind. In order to be criminalized of coercive control, there must also be evidence of a pattern of behaviour. Richards suggests that individuals who think they might be experiencing intimate partner abuse should keep a diary. She suggests documenting every instance of control, intimidation, isolation, deeming commentary, and threat. If it can be done so safely and inconspicuously, recording the abusive person with a smart phone when they are committing coercive control could provide proof of the crime. Richards also suggests that medical evidence of drastic weight loss or prescription medication for anxiety and depression can be used to prove that a victim is experiencing coercive control at home. Statements from family members suggesting a victim’s personality has significantly changed may also help to prove that a victim is suffering from this type of domestic abuse. However, the best proof for persecution is the physical documentation of every instance when a victim felt controlled, scared, isolated or demeaned.
The larger reasoning for criminalizing coercive and controlling behaviour in intimate partnerships is mainly for prevention. This type of behaviour is subtle and it happens over time, but it tends to eventually escalate into violent and even deadly situations. Moreover, coercive control is more predictive of homicide than the existence of physical violence. At first, most victims experiencing coercive and controlling abuse do not think of themselves as victims. Sometimes victims even see their partner’s controlling behaviour as flattering. They will justify certain behaviour, such as their partner asking them to call them every hour when they are out or asking them to wear less revealing clothing, as simply their partner being insecure or extra protective. However, this type of behaviour usually escalates and can begin to restrict a victim’s day to day life. Victims will often find themselves afraid of their partner. They will notice that no matter what they do or how hard they try to appease their partner’s demands it will never be enough. Unfortunately, the most dangerous moment for victims in an abusive relationship is when they are trying to leave. Most domestic murders happen at the point of separation or just shortly thereafter. By criminalizing the non-violent yet still abusive behaviour that often leads to violence, Richards and other advocates believe that many lives will be saved.
Should coercive and controlling behaviour become an offence in Canadian criminal law? Although there is no mention of coercive control as an offence in the Code, Canadian courts are familiar with this form of abuse. Judges have accepted the experience of coercive control as motive for why a woman may attack or murder her abusive partner. In other words, courts understand that being coercively controlled can make a woman feel so afraid of their partner that they might resort to murder as a means of self-defence from the ongoing abusive.
However, few women in Canada have been exonerated with such a defence. In this light, it would not be unimaginable for a lawyer to use the existence of coercive control as grounds for obtaining a peace bond or restraining order.
Many provinces in Canada provide some form of protection against coercive control. In Manitoba’s Domestic Violence and Stalking Act, domestic violence includes “conduct that reasonably, in all the circumstances, constitutes psychological or emotional abuse.” This suggests that individuals experiencing coercive control would be able to seek a protection order against their partner even if their partner has never been physically abusive. However, it does not appear that an individual could be imprisoned or punished for exhibiting coercive and controlling behaviour against their partner.
What might be most imperative in assisting victims of coercive control would be to enhance police training on the various forms of domestic abuse. Police who are made aware of abusive instances should be able to respond adequately when called. Victims of coercive control need just as much protection from their abusive partners as victims experiencing physical domestic violence. Police need to understand the pattern of psychological abuse, rather than investigating each instance individually. If police receive better training on the different forms of abuse in domestic partnerships, then victims might have a better chance of finding a safe way to leave their abusive partners.
If the perpetrators of coercive control do not experience any negative consequences for their behavior, what is preventing them from repeating the pattern on their next partner? This is why Laura Richards and other advocates were adamant in ensuring that coercive control be criminalized in England. Abusers needs to be held accountable for their actions, especially if their actions often lead to violent ends. Canada has recently revamped their efforts in curving gender-based violence. If the government is serious about their commitment to ending violence against women, then emphasizing the alarming consequences of coercive control ought to become a significant part of that effort.
The offence of Coercive and Controlling Behaviour in England - https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/482528/Controlling_or_coercive_behaviour_-_statutory_guidance.pdf
Laura Richards, founder of Paladin, England’s National Stalking Advocacy Service, in an interview discussing the new law against coercive control in England - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7UroR0Y6ER4
John Bolch, “Coercive Control and the Problem of Proof”
Government of Canada’s “Enhancing Safety: When Domestic Violence Cases are in Multiple Legal Systems (Criminal, family, child protection) A Family Law, Domestic Violence Perspective” - http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/fl-lf/famil/enhan-renfo/p3.html#p543
Lori Chambers, “A Missed Opportunity: The Public Investigation into the Conduct of the RCMP in Matters Involving Nicole (Ryan) Doucet” (2017) 32 Can JL & Soc’y 117.
Manitoba’s Domestic Violence and Stalking and Stalking Act - http://web2.gov.mb.ca/laws/statutes/ccsm/d093e.php
An article about a woman who was murdered by her psychologically abusive partner after leaving the relationship - https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/may/20/coercion-and-control-fighting-against-the-abuse-hidden-in-relationships