Scotland has laws that are considered the “gold standard” for protecting women and children from coercive control and they have caught the eye of Australian politicians.
Coercive control is when patterns of abusive behaviours are used by one person to dominate and control another in a relationship.
It usually happens gradually and can involve things like threats, surveillance, insults and withholding money.
It is described as the kind of invisible systemic abuse that over time robs victims of their autonomy and independence.
It is almost always a factor in cases of intimate partner homicide.
In Scotland, laws criminalising coercive control came into force last year and are considered to be the “gold standard” globally.
Federal politicians in Australia have turned to the people who helped develop those laws, as they consider what more can be done as domestic violence claims the life of one woman a week in Australia.
Who helped in Scotland?
Scottish Women’s Aid was one of the key players advocating for change, and it went on to play a central role in crafting the Domestic Abuse Act.
Speaking to an Australian parliamentary inquiry this week, chief executive Dr Marsha Scott said the old laws were ineffective at responding to coercive control.
“The status quo was not acceptable in Scotland, and I would suggest it’s not acceptable in Australia either,” she said.
“I have seen so few domestic abuse cases in which there wasn’t some element of coercion.
“It’s important not to think of coercive control as this totally separate phenomenon that happens and then physical assault happens in a different relationship, they’re all embedded together.”
The bill was developed carefully over time and produced with women’s organisations, in consultation with victim-survivors of domestic violence.
“What women have told us is what they were seeing being prosecuted by the crime office and being pursued by police was the tiny tip of the iceberg,” she said.
“In fact, often their experiences were trivialised by saying, ‘Well you don’t have a broken bone, we don’t see any blood’.”
The parliamentary inquiry she was speaking to is currently looking at immediate and long-term measures to prevent violence against women and their children.
It’s still relatively early days for the Scottish law and its effectiveness is still being assessed, but Dr Scott told the committee 1,000 cases against alleged offenders have been taken to court, with men overwhelmingly the perpetrators and women and children the victims.
Those keeping a close eye on how the law was working in practice are “cautiously optimistic” and in locations where police have been trained well, women are seeing a difference.
She acknowledged there are “some risks” attached to enacting such laws, but prosecution data so far suggests their concerns have not eventuated.
“One of our biggest concerns is that there’s lots of evidence over decades that when you implement new laws that change arrest policies, you get a spike in arrests of women who are actually victims,” she said.
‘You almost feel you’ve got a terrorist in your house’
Linda’s* former partner and father of her child was intensely loving at first, but he gradually isolated her from family and broke down her confidence.
“I felt trapped, you almost feel like you’ve got a terrorist in your house,” she said.
“You’re scared, you are walking on eggshells constantly.”
She said his subtle abuse, which included put-downs and sudden moments of rage, got worse after she fell pregnant.
She managed to leave with the help of support groups and believes criminalising coercive control would help other women escape abusive relationships.
“It was detrimental to my self-esteem … the way you are with other people, you don’t trust people, you can’t go to work and function at a high level, you are constantly scared,” she said.
While Federal Parliament is investigating the issue, criminalising coercive control would require legislative action by state and territory governments.
At the moment, only Tasmania has laws that seek to respond to coercive and controlling behaviours.
Domestically, women’s safety groups have been successful in convincing governments such laws are worth looking at and New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria are all at different stages of considering possible changes.
However, a small group of federal politicians from across party lines have set aside their political differences to form an action group to raise awareness about violence against women and push for policy changes where needed.
Greens senator Larissa Waters, Labor MP Anne Aly and Liberal MP Fiona Martin believe the Federal Government does have a role to play.
“We certainly hope that coercive control can be legislated on to eliminate violence against women and their children,” Dr Martin said.
Senator Waters said the Federal Government should proactively encourage states to take a unified response.
“It’s important for the Federal Government to make sure it’s a consistent approach nationally,” Senator Waters said.
“You shouldn’t get a different level of protection based on which state or territory you live in.”
Ms Aly said the impacts of criminalising coercive control still needed to be interrogated further but said: “This is the place where the conversation needs to start, because nothing changes without political will.”
*Not her real name.