Charged with Coercive Control: What To Do Next?

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Joanne Cestaro


In Brief

In this detailed guide, we unravel the complexities surrounding coercive control accusations, covering legal definitions, potential consequences, and expert advice on navigating the legal process effectively.

Coercive control became a criminal offence with the Serious Crime Act 2015. More recently in April 2023, section 68 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 widened the offence to include partners, ex-partners and even family members.

Since it’s a relatively new offence and even one that accused parties can be unaware they’ve committed, there’s often confusion when someone is charged with coercive control. So, what is classed as coercive control?

What is coercive control?

Coercive control is a form of domestic abuse. Coercive behaviour is an act or a behavioural pattern that involves threats, assault, threats, humiliation or intimidation or other abuse, which harms, punishes or frightens a victim.

Controlling behaviour is concerned with acts that attempt to make a person subordinate or dependent on the accused. It might include isolating someone from support, monitoring their everyday lives, exploiting them and their resources for your own gain, or denying them opportunities to resist and escape your control.

What counts as coercive controlling behaviour?

Here are some examples of coercive or controlling behaviour:

  • Keeping someone away from friends or family
  • Denying them access to medical assistance
  • Controlling where they can go
  • Keeping track of their movements online or in person
  • Taking control of their money or other resources
  • Threatening or intimidating them

Coercive control and the law

The offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship came into law with the Serious Crime Act 2015. But just what is the law on coercive control? 

A wide variety of behaviours and actions can fall under the term coercive or controlling. What’s key, however, is that the victim feels serious alarm or distress, which has a substantial effect on their everyday life. Or it could be that they feared that violence would be used against them, on at least two occasions.

Originally, the offence only applied to partners in a relationship. However, this was broadened by section 68 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 to encompass partners, former partners and even family members.

The victim and the accused must be ‘personally connected’ in one of these ways:

  • They’re in an intimate relationship
  • They live together and were previously in a relationship
  • They live together as family members

How are coercive control accusations proved?

In the past, some forms of coercive control would have been accepted by large sections of society. And its existence would’ve been further clouded by the personal relationships involved. It can still be difficult to prove now. So, what evidence is needed for coercive control cases?

Modern technology can provide vital evidence of controlling coercive behaviour. Police working on such cases commonly examine:

  • Text messages
  • Social media accounts
  • Phone records
  • Emails
  • CCTV
  • 999 call transcripts

Police will also seek any relevant medical records or records of interactions with support services. Of course, they’ll also take witness statements and interview the victims or associated people who may be able and willing to provide statements saying how someone’s behaviour has changed.

What are the sentencing guidelines for coercive control charges?

Is coercive control a serious crime?

The simple answer is yes. Although some people might think personal and family relationships should be kept private, the law recognises that some people exploit relationships to the detriment of others. Such offences are now treated very seriously.

So, what is the punishment for coercive control? In the UK, minimum sentence for the coercive control  offence is a low-level community order, which could involve doing unpaid work or a curfew. At the other end of the scale, the maximum penalty is five years in prison.

The severity of the sentence for coercive control depends on various factors, including how culpable you are and the harm you caused. For example, repeated attempts to control someone, over a prolonged period of time, indicate a higher level of culpability (or blame). Similarly, if the victim felt threatened by the prospect of violence on many occasions – or was affected psychologically – that would be category 1 harm, which carries a tougher sentence.

What defence is there against coercive control accusations?

If the accused believed that they were acting in the victim’s best interests, that’s one possible defence against the accusations. Or it could be that their behaviour is proven to be reasonable, rather than coercive or controlling. 

Either way, the onus is on the prosecution to prove – beyond reasonable doubt – that the behaviour wasn’t reasonable or that the accused knew they weren’t acting in the victim’s interests.

To be found guilty of coercive or controlling behaviour, the accused must also have known that their actions would have a serious effect on the victim. The test for this is whether a reasonable person, with the same information, would have known it.

However, none of these defences are valid if the victim was made to fear the threat of violence on at least two occasions.

What should you do if you’re charged with coercive control?

If you’re charged with this offence, the first thing you need to do is seek expert legal advice, preferably from criminal defence solicitors with expertise and experience in domestic violence. They’ll tell you that you should never contact your accuser, even if they’re a close family member. And they’ll also encourage you to gather as much evidence as you can to support your version of events. 

Why choose Lawtons for your coercive control defence?

We’ve been independently recognised as a leading criminal law firm, by both The Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners. Plus, domestic violence and assault is one of our specialist areas of law. We know all the complexities involved, but we’ll explain the legal process and all your options in plain English.

Contact us now if you’ve been accused of a crime, or charged with one. Don’t put your future at risk.

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