A shifting perspective on domestic abuse and coercive control offences

4th April 2018 Business Crime

On 26th March, the Crown Court convicted Steven Gane of 'Controlling or Coercive Behaviour in an Intimate or Family Relationship' an offence which has been enshrined in law since 2015 (S. 76 Serious Crime Act). The conviction was in respect of his behaviour towards his partner, Kellie Sutton, who committed suicide in August 2017. It was held that Ms Sutton's suicide was a direct result of the treatment she was subjected to by Gane. In sentencing, Judge Grey told Gane 'your behaviour drove Kellie Sutton to hang herself that morning'. Gane was also found guilty of Actual Bodily Harm and Assault by Beating. He was sentenced to four years and three months in prison and a Criminal Behaviour Order. This ruling recognises the severe damage that coercive and controlling behaviour can have on an individual's mental state of mind and is part of a shift in the way that such abuse is understood by the Courts.

Sally Challen was another victim of coercive control, subjected to years of abusive and controlling behaviour at the hands of her husband, Robert Challen, until eventually Sally snapped, killing Richard. Sally was sentenced to life imprisonment for her husband's murder in 2010. The treatment which Sally was subjected to would now be recognised as Coersive Control, however this was not highlighted during her trial because Coercive or Controlling Behaviour was not recognised as a criminal offence until 2015. On 1st March, the Court of Appeal granted leave for Sally Challen to appeal her conviction.

The basis of the application was that new psychiatric evidence indicates that Sally was in fact a victim of coercive control. Furthermore, that developments in the past years in understanding domestic abuse and how it is treated in law were in themselves enough to amount to new evidence. It was argued her sentence should be quashed in favour of a sentence for manslaughter on evidence of her mental state. Whilst the offence it's self does not have retrospective power, Sally's legal team will be seeking at Appeal to have her offence set in the context of coercive control in order to mitigate in respect of sentence and provide the Court with a framework for understanding Sally's actions. If Sally's appeal is successful, this may impact on similar cases and provide for further appeals on similar grounds. Furthermore, the sentence imposed on Mr Gane this week highlights a greater understanding as to the effect that such behaviour can have on a victim's state of mind and shows that the Courts are willing take this into consideration.

What is coercive control?

An abuser will be guilty of the offence of coercive control if:

  • they repeatedly on continuously engage in behaviour towards the victim which is controlling or coercive
  • they are personally connected to the victim;
  • their behaviour has had a serious effect on them; and
  • the abuser knew or ought to have known that their behaviour would have a serious effect on the victim.

The government published guidance in 2015 to assist those investigating offences of coercive control and provided examples of the types of behaviour which may be relevant. Examples of such behaviours include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • isolating the victim from friends and family
  • controlling their finances
  • controlling what the victim wears, who they see or where they go
  • monitoring the victim's activities and movements
  • monitoring the victim online
  • repeatedly verbally abusing the victim
  • threatening to harm or kill the victim or their family/children
  • threatening to publish information about the victim or to report them to the police
  • damaging the victim's property or household goods
  • enforcing rules which humiliate or degrade the victim

In response to the greater level of understanding of coercive control since its inception in law, specific sentencing guidelines which address the offence of coercive control are due to be published later this year. Mike Rainford, a partner in the JMW business crime team says 'It is hoped that the guidelines will allow for greater awareness and provide a framework to allow the Courts to deal with domestic abuse accordingly'.

If you would like advice on Coercive Control or criminal sanctions for domestic abuse, call the JMW Business Crime team on 0345 872 6666.

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Grace O'Driscoll is a Trainee Solicitor located in Manchesterin our Trainee Solicitors department

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