State Attorney-General Mark Speakman has, under pressure from domestic violence advocates and the Labor opposition, promised to fast-track a review by the NSW Department of Justice into laws that criminalise what is known as coercive control.
On Tuesday, Labor MPs agreed to propose their own bill that would make it a crime to engage in a “pattern of domination”, including degrading, frightening or controlling someone, cutting them off from friends, relatives, doctors or lawyers, or monitoring their day-to-day activities.
The wording is designed to catch men who inflict psychological harm on women before relationships descend into violence. A review by the NSW Coroners Court found 99 per cent of domestic homicides were preceded by some form of coercive control.
The new law would allow police to prosecute men for patterns of behaviour, rather than individual assaults that are often regarded as minor by the criminal justice system.
“It’s quite a big change to go from an incident-based system to a course of conduct over time that involves power and control and intimidatory tactics,” said Hayley Foster, the chief executive of Women’s Safety NSW, which is one of the advocates of the change. “The legislative reform will be a really important step.”
Part of the impetus for the measure came from former ABC journalist Jess Hill, who wrote a book about women under the control of violent partners, See What You Made Me Do, which has been lavished with awards.
Ms Hill has cited the example of a husband who forced his wife to sleep in their car with their newly born child. She was only allowed inside the family home to clean and for sex, according to Ms Hill.
The number of murders by an intimate partner have ranged between 49 and 64 each year this decade, according to the national homicide monitoring program.
“Introducing a new offence for coercive control in NSW would be a highly complex but potentially very worthwhile reform and one which absolutely merits thorough research and consultation,” Mr Speakman said.
Some conservatives have expressed concern that the law would penalise men for behaviour that upsets their wives but should not be considered criminal.
Mark Latham, One Nation’s leader in NSW, said husbands could be jailed for 14 years for withdrawing money from a joint bank account and driving the family car without permission.
“The NSW Orwellian Liberals are now aiming to put marriages and families on trial for the newly invented DV [domestic violence] offence, coercive control,” he tweeted. “A shocking, misleading grab for power.”
Ms Foster said the examples cited by Mr Latham were “preposterous and quite absurd”.
Labor’s draft law includes a defence that specifies that unreasonable behaviour is not necessarily criminal to ensure “people who behave poorly don’t end up with a criminal sanction”, said Trish Doyle, Labor’s spokeswoman for the prevention of domestic violence and sexual assault.
The law would not, however, require prosecutors to prove that a victim had been harmed psychologically or physically.
Instead, courts would assess if they believed the perpetrator intended to harm the victim, or was recklessly indifferent to the harm they might have caused.
“Because, if we require the victim to prove actual psychological harm, it becomes a long, drawn-out case,” Ms Foster said. “They have to prove their victimhood.”
The easier legal test makes prosecutions more likely. In Britain, 73 per cent of men charged with coercive control in 2017 pleaded guilty, according to research cited by Women’s Safety NSW.
Even advocates acknowledge that the new law may not work. In 2004, Tasmania prohibited economic abuse and emotional abuse or intimidation.
The offences have rarely been prosecuted, in part because police haven’t been trained to use them, according to women’s safety advocates.