The Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Amendment (Coercive Control – Preethi’s Law) Bill 2020 was introduced to Parliament by Labour member for Shellharbour, Anna Watson, in late September. The introduction of the bill followed the tragic murders of Preethi Reddy and Hannah Clarke, and in the context of a global epidemic of domestic violence and family homicides during COVID-19.
Seeking to expand the current definition of domestic violence to relax its traditional incident-based nature, it explicitly recognises the ‘course of conduct’ of perpetrators of domestic abuse and include a wider range of circumstances in which a victim may experience abuse. This includes the like of digital stalking, including viewing the victim via CCTV and phone tapping.
While noble in its incentive to victims of violence, there are several apparent issues that may face alleged perpetrators of violence. Some of these limitations include:
Where will the line be drawn between conduct normally expected between those involved in an intimate relationship, and conduct which crosses over into the threshold of coercive and controlling behaviour?
Is the issue of coercion and control better dealt with outside of the criminal law, and better dealt with via community education?
Does our inherent societal gender bias mean that law enforcement is inclined to take more seriously complaints of abuse made by women and ignore those of their male counterparts? (This comparison is reflected in the missing data regarding male victims of domestic abuse available to the public.)
Most relationships which attract the criminal law are complex, including arguing, abuse and perhaps violence from both sides, followed by many separations and being reunited on many occasions. A particular issue which arises from the bill is determining what conduct, and how much conduct, will constitute coercive and controlling behaviour. Further, will coercive conduct be considered during prosecution of a spouse who had a violent outburst as a response? Take, for example, a spouse responds to coercive and controlling behaviour with an outburst of violence, will the coercive and controlling conduct of the other spouse still be prosecuted? Unfortunately, as is often the case in criminal law, patterns of past coercive and controlling behaviour are often ignored, and the spouse who responds with physical violence faces prosecution.
Anecdotally, it is complained that men experience similar emotional, psychological and physical abuse, from their female partners. It is therefore very likely that police, who operate on this gender bias, may regard a male spouses’ complaint as groundless, but prosecute the female spouses’ complaint. This kind of inherent prejudice has a historical basis which cannot be fixed through criminalisation. We need to be re-educated on gender bias in order for this law to operate appropriately.
Lastly, it is important to recognise that criminalisation is not equal to education. The dynamics of abusive relationships and the gender bias under which the public, police and courts operate under require re-education of the community, law enforcement and judicial officers. Unfortunately for victims of domestic and family violence, it is unlikely that the proposed law will operate as intended.