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22 April 2024

Introducing the 7 National Principles to Address Coercive Control

Kathryn KearleyFamily lawyers must be aware of how violence can affect their clients, their client’s case and so be able to identify domestic violence. Abuse isn’t always physical. Indeed, it can assume many dimensions - including psychological, economic, and emotional - and occur differently depending on power disparities between the people involved. Coercive control is one aspect of domestic violence, and it can be insidious and difficult to identify. Coercive control is defined as a pattern of controlling behaviour, used by a perpetrator to establish and maintain control over another person.

On 22 September 2023 the National Principles to Address Coercive Control in Family and Domestic Violence were released by the Attorney-General’s Department (AG). These provide a guide to better understanding situations of coercive control.

We spoke to Kathryn Kearley, a family lawyer and adjunct lecturer at the College of Law, to explore the national principles, what makes coercive control so hard to identify, and how one can recognise situations of coercive control.

What are the 7 National Principles?  

According to the A-G, the 7 National Principles focus on:

  1. A shared understanding of the common features of coercive control.
  2. Understanding the traumatic and pervasive impacts of coercive control.
  3. Taking an intersectional approach to understanding features and impacts.
  4. Improving societal understanding of coercive control.
  5. Embedding lived experience.
  6. Coordinating and designing approaches across prevention, early intervention, response, and recovery and healing.
  7. Embedding the National Principles in legal responses to coercive control.

The National Principles set out a shared understanding of common features and impacts of coercive control together with guiding considerations to inform personal legal systematic responses to coercive control,” Kathryn explains.

Lawyers should review the National Principles, and clients can access a simplified ‘easy read’ version here.

Why is Coercive Control so hard to identify?  

Coercive control can be hard to spot for a number of reasons,” Kathryn says. Some of this comes down to the client’s psychological state, as well as cultural factors specific to the client.

A client may feel disinclined to share their experiences with a lawyer,” Kathryn says.

A client may, for various cultural and background issues, think that the conduct is acceptable and usual within a relationship. A client may be fearful of exposing their partner's behaviour. A client may see their living within a controlling relationship as being their fault. And a client may not even realise they are being abused, as such control can include non-physical abuse.”

Lawyers when taking instructions from a client need to ensure they establish rapport and ask appropriate non-leading open questions. Lawyers also need to demonstrate empathy in order to find out whether the client is safe and if family violence including coercive control is present - that can involve understanding the mindset of a client, and how the lawyer might make a client comfortable in sharing deeply personal details of their situation. This could also mean creating a ‘holding space’ for a client and listening actively to the client’s narrative cues of coercive control.

How can you recognise coercive control?  

Family lawyers should be aware as to what is coercive control and ensure they take full instructions, so they can address whether coercive control exists early in the client's case,” Kathryn says.

To assist, the A-G has provided seven fact sheets, written in plain language, and aimed at clients and for use by other stakeholders in the family law system:

These fact sheets are available in English and a number of community languages such as Arabic, Mandarin (Chinese), Punjabi and Vietnamese,” Kathryn says.

The fact sheets pose simple questions - such as ‘What is coercive control?’ This is followed by a case study. It’s an approach that helps both clients and advisors recognise situations of coercive control.

These fact sheets also recognise coercive control might affect those who are First Nations people, have disability, LGBTQIA+ people, older people or those with migrant and refugee backgrounds, and the role technology might play,” Kathryn says.

Videos are also available in a similar format.

Videos start by posing simple questions, such as ‘What is coercive control?’ Again, this is aimed at clients,” Kathryn says.

Resources like these empower lawyers and advisors to raise the possibility of coercive control with their clients.

These resources are free, accessible on all devices and designed to allow people to discuss the topics in a clear and succinct way,” Kathryn says.

These resources will assist lawyers and clients to discuss the client’s case and whether or not coercive control might present itself in the client's family situation,” Kathryn says. “In fact, the resources can help a client whether they are being subjected to coercive control or if they might be behaving in a way which would be regarded as coercive control.”

The resources give lawyers and other advisors information to pass on to clients at the start or during their family law matter.”

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