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Coercive-control convictions indexed in report

20 Jun 2024 / legislation Print

Report indexes coercive-control convictions

A new report provides insights into the nature, impact and prosecution of the coercive-control offence and raises questions around the maximum sentencing associated with it.

Released by Women’s Aid and carried out with the pro-bono support by Arthur Cox, ‘Insights Report: Review of the Publicly Reported Enforcement of the Coercive Control Offence’ examines 11 cases concluded since the enactment of the new offence in January 2019.

“Women’s Aid and other support services had long called for a potential piece of legislation to support greater understanding within our legal system of the dynamics of domestic abuse and protecting victims and survivors,” said Women’s Aid chief executive Sarah Benson.

“The detail of the cases in this insights report suggests that the charge of coercive control is being applied in addition to individual charges of other crimes to capture and sanction the whole-lived experience and pattern of abuse rather than single incidents.

“Previously, the impact of cumulative abuse on the woman was lost to the court. This report shows that the offence of coercive control does indeed enable the visibility within the criminal justice system of that persistent and harmful pattern of abuse that women report to us.”

Benson was speaking at the launch of Women’s Aid’s Annual Impact Report 2023 (18 June) at the LinkedIn building in Wilton Park, Dublin.

It shows an 18% increase in disclosures of domestic abuse against women and children to 40,048, the highest-ever received by the organisation in its 50-year history.

Behaviours accepted by courts

Cliodhna Golden (associate solicitor at Arthur Cox) said that being able to see in the report the range of behaviours accepted by the courts as evidence of coercive control is really helpful for actors within the criminal justice system.

“This report is a fantastic starting point for further discussion and for the development of training and protocols in terms of how to react when people present with coercive-control cases,” she said.

“It is the very first step in what we hope to build into more comprehensive research into this area.”

In general, the entirety of a perpetrator’s conduct against a victim is considered as potential evidence of coercive control.

In all 11 of the cases examined, physical violence and assault, threats of physical violence and verbal and/or emotional abuse were present.

In many of the cases, the following was also relied upon as evidence of coercive control:

  • Property damage (including furniture, personal possessions, damage to home),
  • Monitoring or controlling the movements or locations of the victim (including through tracking locations),
  • Acts of humiliation or degradation,
  • Interfering with contact with family, friends or others outside of the relationship, or isolating the victim from external support networks and contacts,
  • Control over daily life, including eating habits, media consumption, clothes or house decoration,
  • Interference with money or finances (including stealing, transferring money from the victim’s online accounts or providing a meagre ‘allowance’ to the victim),
  • Verbal abuse of the victim’s loved ones, family or friends.

In some of the cases, the following was cited:

  • Excessive contact (especially calls, texts and social-media messages). For example, Kevin Dunleavy, the first man convicted of the offence of coercive control, in 2020, was reported to have made 5,757 phone calls to the victim in a four-month period,
  • Blackmail or threats of blackmail (including in most cases threats to share intimate images of the victim, often taken without their consent),
  • Sexual assault and threats of sexual assault,
  • Interference with the victim’s medication or healthcare devices (including, in two cases, tampering with the victim’s contraception).

In at least one case where information was publicly available, threats against others, threats of self-harm or suicide and physical harassment and/or stalking (including of the victim’s friends or family) were found to constitute evidence of coercive control.

Sentencing “seems low”

In 58% of reported cases, the perpetrator was already known to gardaí, often having multiple prior convictions, including for violence against women and breaches of domestic-violence orders.

The victim had obtained a protective order against the perpetrator in 42% of the reported cases.

The average sentence for the cases was six years imprisonment in total and where a breakdown was provided, the average sentence specifically for the coercive-control offence was three years and two months’ imprisonment.

“Given the evidence outlined in the cases in the report and the sustained, harmful nature of the abuse and the debilitating effects on victims, Women’s Aid is of the view that the maximum sentence of five years for coercive control seems low,” said Benson.

“As we continue this work we will be looking at whether there is the need to increase the maximum sentence in order to properly hold perpetrators to account and act as a deterrent.”

Sorcha Corcoran
Sorcha Corcoran is a freelance journalist for the Law Society.