Queensland has made coercive control a standalone offence. What will it mean for victims and those policing it?

By Jessica Black

Posted Wed 6 Mar 2024 at 6:30amWednesday 6 Mar 2024 at 6:30am, updated Wed 6 Mar 2024 at 2:46pmWednesday 6 Mar 2024 at 2:46pm

The offence will carry a maximum penalty of 14 years in jail — a recommendation by the Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce.(Adobe Stock)

Queensland has passed laws to criminalise coercive control, becoming the second jurisdiction in Australia to do so.

Under the new laws, it will carry a maximum penalty of 14 years in jail.

But it won’t become a criminal offence until 2025.

What is coercive control?

Coercive control is a pattern of behaviour which can include isolation, intimidation, sexual coercion and cyberstalking.

Survivors have described coercive control as “intimate terrorism” or “living in torture”.

It’s “the stuff we don’t often think about” — insidious behaviour, which can “fly under the radar” according to Samara McPhedran from the University of Queensland’s School of Law.

“We often think about domestic violence as just being physical violence. Coercive control is about pattern of behaviour that a lot of perpetrators use to try and control the victims.

“That can be psychological or emotional abuse, it can be financial abuse, can be social abuse, it can be all of these behaviours that are often hidden.”

Hannah Clarke and her three children were killed by her estranged husband. (Supplied: Sue Clarke)

It also underpins most domestic homicides.

Coercive control was found to be a factor in almost every domestic violence death in Canberra over two decades, according to government data.

A NSW inquiry in 2021 found it was linked to almost all domestic violence deaths.

Where is it already a criminal offence?

NSW was the first to pass laws making coercive control a standalone offence in 2022, but it will only come into effect from July this year.

In Tasmania, economic and emotional abuse or intimidation has been illegal for 20 years under the Family Violence Act 2004.

Western Australia is in the early stages of consultation, and the Australian Capital Territory government says it’s watching what happens in other jurisdictions.

Queensland committed to criminalising coercive behaviour after a campaign by the family of Hannah Clarke, who was killed alongside her three children by her estranged partner in 2020.


Lloyd Clarke said the early stages of coecive control can be hard to identify. (AAP: Jono Searle)

Ms Clarke, Aaliyah, 6, Laianah, 4 and three-year-old Trey all died when Rowan Baxter poured petrol in their car and set it on fire in a Brisbane street.

Baxter tracked and controlled what Ms Clarke did and who she spoke to, but an inquest into the murders found she didn’t initially understand it was abuse.

Her father Lloyd Clarke says the “red flags” of coercive control include isolation and “total control”.

“That [total control] is a terrible one and that’s what we had with Hannah. We thought it was a mind game type of thing — making her shut her Facebook page down didn’t seem like a big thing at the time,” he says.

“But now when we look back, that was the start of the control.”

Annabelle Daniel says coercive control keeps women in dangerous relationships. (ABC News: Harriet Tatham)

The CEO of Women’s Community Shelters in New South Wales, Annabelle Daniel, says coercive control keeps women trapped in abusive relationships.

“It is bad because living in it is is described by victim survivors as a form of intimate terrorism or living in torture,” she says.

“It is very much a form of social entrapment.”

What is the proposed law?

The legislation covers cases where an adult in a domestic relationship:

  • Engages in behaviour which involves domestic violence more than once,
  • Intends through this to coerce or control the other person, and
  • It is reasonably likely to cause the other person harm, whether temporary or permanent.

This can include emotional, financial and psychological abuse, like preventing someone getting a job, locking them out of finances, isolating them from friends and family or tracking them.

In England, where coercive control has been an offence since 2015, the legislation isn’t often used, Dr McPhedran says.

Policing and prosecuting coercive control here will face the same hurdles as existing domestic violence laws — with the added challenge of it being a “subtle and often subjective” abuse, she says.

“We know that systems as they stand aren’t as effective in supporting victims as they could or should be.

“There’s a real gap there still between having laws on the books and actually translating them into practice in a way that addresses broader systemic challenges we know exist.”

Are we ready to enforce it?

Professor Heather Douglas from Melbourne Law School says we have “really clear information” the Queensland Police Service (QPS) is not yet prepared to police coercive control.

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A 2022 report into QPS responses to domestic violence found a “failure of leadership” allowed cultural issues within the service to fester “unchecked” for years, and that sexism, misogyny and racism were a significant problem, which were not always dealt with appropriately.

“We have really clear information about the lack of police understanding of coercive control in Queensland,” she says.

“In that inquiry, there were many failures of police … to connect up incidences of control.”

The law will also disproportionately affect First Nations people who already have higher rates of incarceration, Professor Douglas says.

“We know that when we criminalise particular forms of behaviour … Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are disproportionately criminalised under those laws,” she says.

“There will have to be a lot of care with how we prosecute these offences. It’s a very serious offence in Queensland.”

Family and domestic violence support services:

If you need help immediately call emergency services on triple-0

Dr McPhedran says there’s also the risk First Nations victims will be identified as perpetrators.

“Aboriginal women are more likely to be incorrectly classified as perpetrator when really they were the victim. If we see that already happening in physical violence it is going to be a very real concern that it can also happen with other forms of abuse.”

In a statement, QPS said the service had been preparing ahead of the law passing.

“The QPS … will be ready to finalise a framework when the bill is passed in parliament. Frontline police officers will receive training to support that response,” they said.

Will criminalising it be enough?

Criminalisation needs to sit in a “holistic framework”, which includes how to police it, and what people understand it to mean Shaan Ross-Smith, board chair of the Queensland domestic violence hotline DV Connect, says.

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“It is absolutely not enough to just criminalise coercive control,” Ms Ross-Smith, who also directs Griffith University’s MATE program, says.

“For some people who don’t work in this space, even the term coercive control is foreign or unknown to them.

“We need to do a lot of work to help people understand and identify what it is. And then we need to offer far more programs, services and resources for those who have chosen to use violence.”

She hopes criminalisation will “set the tone” for how people see coercive control.

“I’m hopeful that with the right supports around it, we can end the national crisis in this country that is violence against women,” she says.

Posted 6 Mar 20246 Mar 2024, updated 6 Mar 2024