Australia’s first standalone coercive control laws have come into effect. Will they work? (2024)

This article contains references to domestic violence.

The criminalisation of coercive control begins today in NSW, with the government promising the laws will make women safer.

Attorney-General Michael Daley said abuse against a current or former partner is "unacceptable and will not be tolerated".

"We believe in the presumption of innocence, but it is also important to recognise the right of

victim-survivors

to be safe from harassment, intimidation or violence," Daley said.

The criminalisation of coercive control passed state parliament in 2022, but its introduction was delayed to allow time to educate police, the judiciary and the public.

What is coercive control?

Coercive control is an ongoing and repeated pattern of behaviour used to control or dominate another person.

The term can cover scaring, hurting, isolating, humiliating, harassing or monitoring another person, as well as taking away someone's freedom or unreasonably controlling their day-to-day activities.

While coercive control can include physical and sexual abuse, it doesn't necessarily involve either.

The NSW Domestic Violence Death Review team found that coercive control was a precursor to 97 per cent of intimate partner homicides between 2000 and 2018 in the state.

High-profile cases such as the murder of Brisbane woman Hannah Clarke and her three children by her estranged husband Rowan Baxter in 2020 have brought national attention to coercive control.

The coronial inquest into the murders found that Baxter had a history of coercive control, including reproductive coercion.

The murders led to

the Queensland government passing legislation outlawing coercive control

— named Hannah’s Law — in March of this year, with legislation expected to come into force in 2025.

What do the new laws say?

The new laws make coercive control in current and former intimate partner relationships a criminal offence. Perpetrators could be jailed for up to seven years if found guilty.

Successful prosecutions will have to prove an intent to coerce and control.

However, the laws will not be applied retroactively and do not apply to offences that occurred before 1 July.

How has NSW been preparing for the laws?

The legislative reforms have been backed by $5.6 million in initial funding for coercive control laws to be implemented, including training for police, awareness campaigns and educational resources.

In August, the state government launched a website designed to ensure the NSW public can access information about coercive control.

Then in May, it launched an advertising campaign of videos and advertisem*nts using the tagline: "It’s not love, it’s coercive control. Know the signs of abuse."

What are researchers saying about the new laws?

Emma Buxton-Namisnyk, a lecturer in the UNSW faculty of law and a domestic and family violence researcher, says that while the laws are significant, she is concerned about the training and planning for implementation that has preceded the legislation coming into effect.

Buxton-Namisnyk said that she hopes police have been adequately trained to work with victim-survivors and learned what information needs to be collected to prosecute under these laws.

"The laws themselves are very complex in terms of the standards required, the different elements of the offence to be proved, and also the kind of evidence obligations around collecting evidence of the specific intent of the person who is using coercive control," she said.

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Buxton-Namisnyk also notes that victim-survivors may be forced to document what’s happening to them to establish a pattern of conduct.

"One episode of coercive control isn’t going to be enough, likely … and it’s going to need to be multiple different kinds of examples of coercive control and behaviour that they’re going to need to prove in order to get a successful prosecution up," she said.

Other potential issues have also been raised.

Professor Ruth Phillips, a social policy researcher from the University of Sydney, believes that there may be profound barriers for women looking to report coercive control to the police.

"The government’s announcement asks women to make sure they go to police and report coercive control," she said.

"You can imagine how challenging that might be because women in that situation are highly monitored by the coercive partner. They don’t necessarily have the freedom just to turn up to police."

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Are there other concerns?

Buxton-Namisnyk is also concerned about the issues of perpetrator misidentification among First Nations women that could lead to further criminalisation of First Nations victim-survivors of violence.

Police misidentifying First Nations victim-survivors as perpetrators of family and domestic violence

is an ongoing problem and Aboriginal-led organisations have expressed concern that the new coercive control laws will only add to this issue.

Warringa Baiya Aboriginal Women’s Legal Centre wrote in their 2021 submission to the NSW Joint Select Committee on Coercive Control that if an Aboriginal woman is currently unable to persuade police officers that "she is the primary victim of physical violence, what hope or incentive is there to persuade a police officer that she has experienced ongoing psychological and economic abuse?"

"We should be extremely cautious of any expansion of the criminal law that may disproportionately impact Aboriginal people," said Buxton-Namisnyk.

"We know that Aboriginal people are over-represented in the criminal legal system … my concern remains that these laws will only amplify that existing racialised policing problem that we have around family and domestic violence."

Rasha Abbas, the CEO of InTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence, echoed these concerns, saying the results could be "disastrous" for women from multicultural backgrounds.

Abbas says one in three of the clients seen by the centre have experienced being misidentified as the aggressor in family and domestic violence situations by law enforcement.

"We have supported women who have lost custody of their children in this situation," Abbas said.

"So, if this legislation is to be applied correctly, law enforcement and the justice system need to engage with interpreters and have sufficient training in culturally sensitive practice."

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Buxton-Namisnyk hopes there will be close oversight of the success and use of the coercive control laws.

While the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research will likely publish data on charging and conviction patterns, she says she wants to see transparency in the policing of coercive control.

"What we're not going to necessarily know at this stage, and for quite some time — or potentially ever — is the extent of undercharging that is going to happen," she said.

"I hope that as well, we get some increased visibility into what's actually going on on the ground in terms of operational policing of these new provisions."

If you or someone you know is impacted by family and domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732, text 0458 737 732, or visit

. In an emergency, call 000.

, operated by No to Violence, can be contacted on 1300 766 491.

Australia’s first standalone coercive control laws have come into effect. Will they work? (2024)

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