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Insights // 23 February 2021

What is Coercive Control?

Associate solicitor Gemma Kemp, in our leading Family Law team, explains what coercive control is and the help that is available.

The term ‘domestic abuse’ is often thought to cover physical abuse that a person sustains from someone they are in a relationship with. However, domestic abuse takes many forms, including physical abuse, but also emotional, sexual, psychological and financial abuse, and coercive control. 

Coercive control is a criminal offence under the Serious Crime Act and should be reported to the police. Protection can also be sought from the family court.

What is coercive control?

Coercive control is a form of domestic abuse. It is when a person repeatedly behaves in a way to make a person to whom they are personally connected feel controlled, isolated, dependent and/or frightened. The behaviours often build up over time, and can be subtle.

There is no exhaustive list controlling behaviours, but examples of coercive control are:

  • Isolating you from friends and family;
  • Humiliating or degrading you, or repeatedly putting you down;
  • Monitoring your time;
  • Controlling how much money you have and/or how you spend your money;
  • Controlling aspects of your everyday life, for example, saying where you can go, who you can see, what you can wear etc;
  • Monitoring your phone/online activities;
  • Sending a barrage of text messages/phone calls etc;
  • Making threats/intimidating you;
  • Depriving you of basic needs, such as food and/or sleep;
  • Depriving you of access to support services;
  • Gaslighting you, whereby the abuser will try to convince you that you are wrong about something (often in an caring and compassionate way), when in fact you are right, or refusing to listen to your point of view about something;
  • Damaging your property or possessions.

Coercive control often happens within the context of an intimate relationship, and the statistics available reflect that women are more likely to be victims of abuse. However, men can also be victims of all types of domestic abuse, and the abusive behaviour can occur in any relationship, including parent/child relationships.

Often, the behaviours build up over time, rather than there being significant ‘incidents’ of behaviour. For example, where there is physical abuse, it is easier to identify what has happened and when, and to show the consequences. This is not necessarily the case with coercive control, and it is important to look at the ‘lived experience of the relationship’, to identify the damaging behaviours.

Furthermore, in some instances, the person who has been subjected to coercive control does not realise that they are in an unhealthy and abusive relationship, and the psychological impact upon them when they do realise can be significant. This should be borne in mind by family law practitioners and those helping friends and family members who are in/have been in an abusive relationship.

The effects on a person who has been subjected to coercive control can be significant and long-lasting, and it is important that emotional and/or psychological support is sought from a professional at the earliest opportunity. 

Coercive control as a crime

A person will be guilty of the offence of coercive control if it is proven that:

  1. S/he is personally connected to you; and
  2. Her/his behaviour has had a serious effect on you; and
  3. She/he knew or ought to have known that their behaviour would have a serious effect on you.

You will be personally connected if you are in an intimate or family relationship.

Serious effect means that on at least two occasions, you have feared that violence would be used against you, or you have felt serious distress and it has had a substantial effect on your usual day to day activities, i.e. you have changed the way you socialise, the way you carry out chores, etc.

The court will decide whether the abusive person knew or ought to have known that his or her behaviour would have had a serious effect on you, based on whether a reasonable person in the same circumstances would have known or ought to have known.

Coercive control in the family court

Domestic abuse, including coercive control, can be extremely relevant in family law proceedings. The family court can offer protection by way of domestic abuse injunctions, such as occupation orders (which exclude the abuser from entering a named property and/or an area around it) and non-molestation orders (which prevent the abuser from pestering, harassing, intimidating and threatening the person alleging the abuse).

Coercive control is also relevant when considering the division of finances upon a relationship breakdown, as the abuser is likely to continue to try to control the outcome of these discussions, and the person who has been abused may have little or no knowledge of their financial circumstances, if these have been controlled during the relationship.

Furthermore, where arrangements for the children need to be discussed, a person who has been subjected to coercive control may have a very real and genuine fear about the impact the abuser’s behaviour has had or will have on the children. This may be particularly so, where the abuser is manipulative and/or does not see anything wrong in the way they behave.  Often, the difficulty for the family court is that the behaviours take place in private, and in a family setting, and there may be little by way of evidence to support any allegations.

As an awareness of coercive control and the damaging impact it can have grows, the family court is seeing an increase in the number of cases involving such abuse.  Some judges have been criticised for the way they have handled such cases recently, which has led to the Court of Appeal considering the approach the court takes when four conjoined appeals were heard between 19 - 21 January 2021. Judgment is still awaited from the Court of Appeal, but it is hoped that clear guidance will be handed down to ensure a consistent approach from the family court generally, and to ensure that those who have been subjected to such abuse will be appropriately supported. It is anticipated that the guidance will include a recommendation for judges in the family court to undergo specific training in coercive control, a recommendation for there to be an overhaul of the approach taken to presenting the allegations, and a recommendation for there to be early ‘risk of harm reports’ in cases involving children.


These include:

For further information or legal advice, please contact or call 0118 951 6800.

This article is intended for the use of clients and other interested parties. The information contained in it is believed to be correct at the date of publication, but it is necessarily of a brief and general nature and should not be relied upon as a substitute for specific professional advice.

Gemma Kemp

Gemma Kemp

Associate Solicitor, Family Law

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