Is criminalizing coercive control the best way to reduce family violence?

Toronto family lawyer Jennifer Daudlin says a new law that would criminalize coercive control is a positive step in addressing intimate-partner violence, but it must be complemented by support for those who perpetrate violence.

Daudlin frequently works with survivors of intimate-partner violence as well as those accused of causing harm in her practice. On the one hand, she says, the legislation will send a signal that society sees this type of conduct as morally reprehensible. But she says it’s important to tread carefully in criminalizing behaviour without providing opportunities for rehabilitation and support to those convicted.

Further, Daudlin says that making coercive control a crime will have a butterfly effect across other areas of the justice system, notably family law.

“In criminalizing the behaviour, there’s the potential of deterring people from seeking help, whether they’re the victim or the one causing harm,” Daudlin says. “Our survivor clients want to see support for the people who caused them harm so they can overcome those tendencies. We want to curtail the bad behaviour, but if we don’t provide people with the tools to heal, to learn and to grow, we further marginalize them and exacerbate the factors that lead to coercive control and, ultimately, homicidal behaviour.”

In 2019 in Canada, there were more than 107,000 victims of police-reported intimate-partner violence; women accounted for almost 80 per cent of victims. 

What is coercive control?

Coercive control is defined as behaviour by a current or former partner or family member that causes the victim to fear they will be physically harmed, causes their mental health to decline or causes them such distress that there is a substantial adverse effect on their day-to-day lives, reports CBC.

Randall Garrison, the NDP MP from British Columbia who introduced the private member’s bill, says it will enable police to intervene sooner in high-risk domestic violence cases, the news site reports.

“The current structure of the Criminal Code simply makes the police walk away, even when they know that situations are potentially very dangerous. They don’t have the authority to intervene. So, it creates that tool for earlier intervention,” Garrison says in the CBC article.

Framework for intimate-partner violence

To understand intimate-partner violence, Daudlin says it’s helpful to look at the framework researchers Joan B. Kelly and Michael P. Johnson laid out in 2008 for categorizing four types of violence:

Coercive controlling violence: This occurs in relationships with a clear power imbalance where one spouse/partner controls the other through fear, physical violence or psychological threats. 

Situational couple violence: This type of violence may be recurring or a single incident that occurs between couples as fights where both are involved. 

Separation instigated violence: This type of violence occurs at the end of a relationship, and it often involves physical and verbal confrontations.

Violent resistance: This involves the use of violence to resist a violent or coercively controlling partner. 

Unlike the coercive controlling person, the resistor’s outburst is short-lived, generally quelled by disproportionate instances of violence on the part of the coercive controlling causer of harm.

In her practice, Daudlin says she’s always watching for signs of potential violence in all forms in families.

“From the initial consultation all the way through to the end of the case, I’m constantly screening for intimate-partner violence and power imbalances, gauging the risk of harm to my client, the other party and their children,” she says.

Separation is a critical juncture; Daudlin says the increased risk for violence includes death of partners, children, pets and the causers of harm themselves.

“Most domestic homicides are perpetrated by coercive controlling people. Statistically, men are overwhelmingly the causers of harm. But regardless of gender, control is often the goal. If they cannot re-establish control, there’s a risk for lethality,” she says.

Understanding the risk factors

Daudlin says support for survivors, many of whom are dependent on their abusive partners, is critical, but it’s also vital to address the root causes of violent behaviour.

“Left unaddressed, the causer of harm can continue their own cycle of abuse and transfer or redirect those often-misogynistic values to another family member or relationship,” she says. “There are so many contributors to coercive controlling violence.

“If we don’t provide social programs to teach people about healthy relationships and how to modify their behaviours to maintain a healthy relationship, we cannot then reasonably expect that they will be able to identify the problem in their current or future relationships, much less stop the cycle of abuse.”

Ontario’s Domestic Violence Death Review Committee studied 390 domestic homicide and/or homicide-suicide cases that occurred between 2003 and 2018 and identified a number of risk factors:

  • In 71 per cent of cases, there was a history of domestic violence
  • In 67 per cent of cases, the couple had an actual or pending separation
  • In 50 per cent of cases, the perpetrator was depressed
  • In 44 per cent of cases, the perpetrator threatened or attempted suicide
  • In 39 per cent of cases, the perpetrator was unemployed.

Breaking the cycle

The overarching goal of any intervention to address intimate-partner violence should be to break the cycle, Daudlin says, and that will require a holistic approach.

“The approach we take has to be thoughtful and co-ordinated with measures to reduce family violence. We need to provide support to survivors, children and the causers of harm, all of which requires funding. We need community-based programs that are well resourced and a public education campaign that includes trauma-informed training and intersectionality training not only for the members of our communities, but for the police, the bar and the judiciary, as well as first responders and mental health service providers.”

Something else to keep in mind in criminalizing coercive controlling violence is the risk that it will impact communities differently, especially those that have been over-policed and over-incarcerated, as well as those who are over-represented in the family law, child protection and immigration systems, Daudlin stresses.

“When legislating family violence, we must do it with an understanding of the various communities the law seeks to protect, the legal system’s history of inherent biases and systemic racism, and the different types of violence that can manifest in relationships and their causes, while providing support for violent resistors, opportunities for education and, where necessary, rehabilitation for causers of harm,” she says.

If you would like to schedule a consultation with Jennifer to discuss your situation, click here.

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