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Coercive & controlling behaviour

by Teelan & Silwal

4 November 2021

Domestic abuse in a relationship is not always physical. The mental and emotional abuse caused by coercive and controlling behaviour in a toxic relationship is equally as damaging. Many survivors of coercive control in a relationship experience a hidden psychological violence, which leaves them traumatised. In this blog, published to coincide with the coming into force of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, we will be talking about a recent leading case that explains the impact that this behaviour in a relationship can have on the survivor.

Coercive and controlling behaviour in a relationship is most certainly a crime. Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 considers, “controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship where the behaviour has a serious effect on the victim, a criminal offence.” Do we, however, know when one person’s actions cross the line and become a crime? Not always. When you are in the midst of it, it can be easy to miss the persistent undercurrent of abusive behaviour and it is quite often hidden in plain sight. So, what exactly is coercive and controlling behaviour and how can you spot it? 

According to the Family Procedure Rules 2010 PD12J, coercive behaviour is, “an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten the victim.” Controlling behaviour is, “an act or pattern of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.” 

In the recent Children Act 1989 case of F v M [2021] EWFC 4, the Court’s approach to coercive and controlling behaviour was that, in order to understand the scope and ambit of alleged controlling and coercive behaviour, it is necessary to understand that both coercion and control involve a range of individual acts, which must be evaluated “in the context of the wider forensic landscape”. This is the first time the Family Court, at High Court level, has been approached to analyse allegations of controlling and coercive behaviour with the kind of detail that this case has required. The Honourable Judge, Mr Justice Hayden, had not been able to find any other reported case in his research. Mr Justice Hayden commented that, “though some of the behaviours I have been evaluating are sadly all too familiar to those involved in investigating domestic abuse, understanding and identifying them in the context of a wider pattern of behaviour presents a continuing challenge. It is, I hope, helpful to consider the available guidance and assistance in both Family and Criminal Law.”

Facts and findings of the case: F v M [2021] EWFC 4

The Father (“F”) made an application for contact with his two children, Y, aged 6, and S, aged 3. The children lived with their mother, (“M”) who was in her mid-twenties. This case was transferred to the High Court by the Court of Appeal, which had overturned a case management decision not to consider evidence of fact. 

In the Court of Appeal’s decision, the court had the opportunity not only to hear about F’s treatment of M, but also his next relationship with Mrs J (“J”). J was a woman in her forties (almost double F’s age) with 2 children. While M had been able to rescue herself fully from F’s thrall, albeit after many years of mental abuse, J remained under F’s vicious control and was completely oblivious to the fact that F had been controlling and coercing her in their relationship. According to research by Evan Stark, a US writer, many people in a relationship who are subject to coercive control, “do not recognise that it is a crime and that it should be reported.” M, in the first relationship, eventually reported F’s disturbing behaviour to the Police and was able to extricate herself from the marriage. J, on the other hand, did not recognise the extent to which she was being controlled by F. 

Despite the differences that both women had in their approach when handling F’s behaviour, there were many similarities in the way they were treated by F. Firstly, both relationships had progressed extremely quickly, to the point where F impregnated and married M within less than a year of knowing her. Similarly, F initiated marriage and pregnancy talks with J less than 6 months into the relationship. Each of the women was systematically isolated from her family, discouraged from seeing friends and colleagues and compelled to quit study and work. 

When F came to know of M’s early, unplanned pregnancy, without giving her the opportunity to process it herself, F compelled her to immediately call her parents and give them the “good news”. As could be expected, M was absolutely shocked and worried about her future. F forced M to leave university, even though M wanted to continue with her education and her tutor had discouraged her from quitting. She suggested taking a year out, but F did not think it appropriate and said it would cause stress in her pregnancy. After leaving university, pregnant M had nowhere to stay and was smuggled into F’s university halls and would often take refuge in the university library. This was another one of F’s tactics to keep M close and within his sight. 

During the course of their relationship, F ensured that they moved around frequently so that M’s parents were unaware of their whereabouts. On one occasion, he sent a text message from M’s phone to her parents saying that they were moving to Cornwall, when in fact they were living in Essex at the time. M’s parents, after having had no contact with M for several months, desperate to see their daughter, travelled to Cornwall in search of her. This was F’s idea of a joke – playing mind games with M’s parents. Whenever M’s parents would raise a welfare risk of their daughter to the Police, it was often brushed off and not taken seriously. This was because F involved the Police on a previous occasion when M went to spend time with her parents and F accused the parents of holding M against her will and raised a risk of honour-based violence. The Police unfortunately accepted this allegation without further investigation, as they believed it was likely owing to the differences in M and F’s religion. 

F controlled both women emotionally, physically, psychologically and financially. From isolating the women in a room with no escape or contact with others, to taking full control of their phones and constantly monitoring all messages and calls made by them, F had established all levels of control in both relationships. From M’s Police disclosure, it was found that she was raped by F on many occasions, on one of which she fell pregnant with her second child. Once M eventually broke free from F’s toxic control, in September 2017, after being subject to a brutalising and dehumanising 4 years, F formed a relationship with J. Comparably to M, J left her job, which she loved and was doing well in. She left her home and friends and became estranged from her parents, something completely unlike her. Having been with F, J lost sight of her children’s wellbeing and due to her lack of care for the children the Court transferred the children to her former husband’s care. At the time this case was heard, the children currently had no contact with J. Justice Hayden found F to be “a profoundly dangerous young man, dangerous to women he perceives to be vulnerable and dangerous to children.”

The parents of both women and J’s former husband gave vital evidence about the disturbing extent and impact of F’s controlling behaviour. His behaviour was described by the parents of M and the mother of J in almost an identical manner. The parents were aware of their daughters’ writing style and often knew F was the one behind abusive text messages. They labelled F as an “insidious, unsettling and controlling” man. It was surprising for Justice Hayden to read that the parents of M and the mother of J, who had never met and who had entirely different life experiences, described in similar terms how their daughters were coerced into a distorted relationship, which slowly chipped away at both of the women’s sense of self autonomy. Justice Hayden states that, “There is a strong sense of frustrated powerlessness not only in both families, but more widely in the social and professional circles of these two women.” 

Justice Hayden concluded the case judgment with a comment on Scott Schedules in Children Act proceedings. This may come as a surprise to many family law professionals, but the Judge stated that, “Such an insidious type of abuse may not be captured by this formulaic approach to marshalling the evidence and honing the allegations.” He commented that where coercive and controlling behaviour is alleged, Scott Schedules are ineffective and frequently unsuitable. It can be seen in Mr Justice Hayden’s detailed judgment that there is an underlying need for the Court to assess a pattern or series of acts cumulatively to find if there is coercion and control present in the relationship. 

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