NSW Announced Plans to Criminalize Coercive Control: A History of Progression

Updated: Jan 7


NSW Parliament House. Photo Credit: Adam.J.W.C, Wikipedia.

On December 18, 2021, Mark Speakman, New South Wales' (NSW) Attorney General and Minister for Prevention of Domestic and Sexual Violence announced that he would draft an anti-coercive control bill for their state. The news of this decision follows months of a formal inquest the state government held to understand what encompasses coercive control and its impact on the citizens of NSW. NSW wouldn't be the first Australian state to commit to a coercive control bill. In November 2020, the state of Queensland also publicly stated they plan to enact a coercive control bill in 2024. Where NSW foresees enactment in 2023. Both states would join Tasmania, whose government enacted legislation that criminalized coercion and control with the Family Violence Act of 2004.


New South Wales is one of six states in Australia. With a populous of more than 8 million and home to global popular montropolis, Sydney. Australia, like most countries, struggles with domestic violence and misogynistic beliefs of women and children, especially married women, are property. 1 in 3 women in Australia has experienced physical violence since the age of 15. 1 in 5 women has experienced sexual violence since the age of 15. 1 in 3 women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence perpetrated by a man they know. Since Covid-19, in NSW alone, there has been a 4.1% rise in domestic violence over a two-year period according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.


NSW has consistently revised and adapted their criminal legislation, the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), to include domestic violence. In 1982, the crimes act was amended by the Crimes (Domestic Violence) Amendment Act 1982 (NSW) to introduce apprehended domestic violence orders (AVO) in NSW. AVOs are much like the United State protection orders, and could be made for the protection of a person living in a marriage or unmarried couples living together.

Then in 1983, the Crimes Act was expanded to include child assault with the Domestic Violence and Child Assault regulation.


Over the decades, NSW has continuously taken small measures to update their domestic violence laws; ensuring the safety of their citizens adding gun restrictions and a myriad of other provisions focused on protection. Until 1996. An extensive legislative revision came about from an injustice - Jean Lennon's brutal murder. Jean Lennon's execution style murder took place right in front of the family court before the commencement of a child custody hearing. The gruesome and cold murder finally validated what advocates had been warning: the system had dangerous holes.

 

"Ms Lennon was murdered by her estranged husband outside Parramatta family court while waiting for a custody hearing. He had threatened to kill her many times so she had used every protection measure to ensure her children’s and her own safety. She had an ADVO issued against her husband so as a consequence he had his gun licence revoked but this did not stop him from possessing a gun. She was on the run fleeing from refuge to refuge every time he found her. The police and the courts knew of her troubles but despite protection attempts she was murdered. This murder was used to persuade state government to provide more effective protection and review the law that cover domestic violence." - Legal Studies, The School for Excellence (TSFX)

 

Jean Lennon's story is one where a coercive control bill may have made a

difference. After an violent and sexually abusive 18 year marriage, Jean fled with her children from her controlling millionaire husband. For two years, Jean exhausted all the protections available to her to protect her. Jean was hunted, going to shelter to shelter with her children in tow. It was reported that after Jean's estranged husband was served the ADVO, he filed a contrived motion with the court to have more time with his family. Forcing Jean to appear; exposed in public without the safety net of domestic violence shelters. Police and family court were aware of his stalking, threats to kill her, rape, and controlling behavior. The courts removed his guns after being served with an ADVO. Despite the inability to legally possess a gun, her estranged husband shot her five times in front of the Parramatta family court as she was seeking additional protections for her and her children.


Jean's murder and the subsequent murder trial of her estranged husband, raised alarms of many in Australia. Technically, Jean had done everything right. She left. She sought aid at shelters and protections from police. She was honest in family court and was awarded legal protections to deter the lethality risk where his guns were removed. In theory, these current laws should had been sufficient to keep Jean and her children safe. Even with NSW's overhaul of domestic violence laws, violent murderous acts continued to occur and increase in number despite the issuance of an ADVO.


2016 was the 20th anniversary of Jean's death. In an interview with news.com.au, Professor Easteal explained why the inefficiency of the laws in 1996 failed Jean and have continued to fail women in Australia, largely due to a lack of continuity between Australian states' protection order laws.

 

"She [Prof. Easteal] said part of the problem was each state and territory treated protection orders differently. Another is that we treat society’s most vulnerable members — children — with kid gloves.


“We need to change that, to educate children in primary schools about violence and how to behave in a nonviolent way. To me, it’s so obvious.”

 

Overtime, there's been a lethal causality and effect when it comes to NSW and their amendment to domestic violence laws. As with the adoption of the 2007 Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act.


The act in 2007 was a victory for many advocates against domestic violence. The language in the 2007 act clearly defined domestic violence as a criminal act by inserting consequences and extending protections to all persons who experience personal violence outside a domestic relationship.


Today's advocates against domestic violence are largely sounding the bell to create awareness of coercive control and the need to criminalize it. Criminalizing coercive control seems to be the barrier between abusive behaviors and escalation to lethality. Many Australians have lobbied for this bill including the parents of Hannah Clarke. Lloyd and Sue Clarke have been campaigning for an anti-coercive control bill since their son in law murdered their daughter Hannah and their three grandchildren in Queensland. Hannah's story has similar parallels to Jean Lennon's abusive relationship. Like Jean, Hannah was involved with a domestic violence organization, had an active case in family court, and had taken the kids when she left her abusive and controlling husband. Hannah and her husband were estranged at the time of the murder as was with Jean's murderer. Hannah had fled her abusive and controlling husband with her children: Aaliyah, 6; Laianah, 4; and Trey, 3 to live with her parents. She and the children were free for 50 days before Hannah's husband murdered them all by pouring gasoline on Hannah and the children in Hannah's car, then lighting them and the car on fire.


Clarke had met her estranged husband, Rowan Baxter, when she was barely of age at nineteen years old. Baxter who was eleven years her senior was 30 years old and married. While active in his committed relationship, Baxter decided to pursue a romantic relationship with Clarke. In an interview with the Guardian Australia, Hannah's parents explained that from day one, Hannah was lied to and Baxter love-bombed their young daughter.

 

"He lied from day one, telling Hannah that he was single when he wasn’t. He moved very quickly, according to the Clarkes, love-bombing Hannah and pursuing her in a whirlwind romance.


They married quickly, but vital background knowledge about Baxter’s past was revealed slowly – his troubled childhood and adolescence, his mental health issues and his plans to kill his previous partner and child. "

 

Clarke married Burke in 2011 and had left with the kids in December 2019 with the aid of a domestic-violence support worker, Manja Whaley according to the Guardian Australia:

 

"Manja Whaley, a domestic-violence support worker, who became a friend of Clarke, said Clarke confided in her about a pattern of domestic violence late last year. “We talked about the different types of violence including financial abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and [Hannah] experienced all of them,” Whaley wrote on social media."

 

Police in an interview admitted that they had been called by Hannah on several occasions. Queensland police detective inspector, Mark Thompson stated that Hannah had been granted an ADVO. It is unclear whether that ADVO was served to Baxter. What has been clear and substantiated is that Hannah, during the marriage, had been emotionally, physically, sexually and financially abused. In other words, Hannah and her children were victims of coercive control.

"Clusters of risk markers are considered more predictive than numbers of them; for example, where there is control, violence and a separation after living together there is said to be a 900% increase in the potential for homicide (NCICP 2003)." - Jane Monckton Smith, Intimate Partner Femicide (2019)

The Clarke's recent public efforts educating Australians for the need to criminalize and understand the lethality of coercive control has accredited validation from an unexpected ally - coroners. Before Hannah's and her children's murder, in 2010, under the NSW Coroners Act 2009, the coroners instituted the NSW Domestic Violence Death Review Team (DVDRT) to review intimate partner homicides within NSW. DVDRT found that between March 10, 2008 and June 30, 2016, out of 112 intimate partner homicides, 111 (99%) of the deaths, "the relationship between the victim and the abuser was characterised by the abuser’s use of coercive and controlling behaviours." The report repetitiously noted the all deaths were perpetrated by males. Aligning with reports from other countries where their data shows coercive control and other acts of domestic violence are committed predominantly by males.


In October 2020, the NSW government established the NSW Joint Select Committee on Coercive Control. A few month after being established, the committee held a public hearing. With over 150 submissions, the committee heard from several strong community advocates for the criminalization of coercive control including Dr. Karen

Williams, Founder of Doctors Against Violence Towards Women. Dr. Williams is a psychiatrist who treats victims of coercive control. Her impassioned plea sheds light on the daily deluge of controlling behaviors and how damaging they truly are. That the injuries from coercive control are not just psychological, but actual cause physical harm to the victim's neurobiological make up.

 

"In the discourse around coercive control, I keep hearing people talk about how it would be difficult to legislate coercive control because there are no injuries, there are no bruises they say…no broken bones.


But I will argue that there are tools involved in coercive control. There are predictable behaviours used by abusers that I can elaborate on. There are neurobiological changes or injuries that can be seen and measured."

 

Mark Speakman's announcement to put forth a bill to criminalize coercive control comes from a culmination of decades of research and persistence from advocates. From the committee's reports it appears the bill will have a few substantial measures:


  1. NSW Government criminalize coercive control with "thorough consultation and training" which is assisted through a multi-agency taskforce.

  2. As a priority, modify legislation around ADVOs to include coercive control to the definition of domestic violence so that victims will be able to access justice for that type of abuse.

  3. Child educational programs to curb controlling behaviors in the next generation and help girls identify/avoid domestic violence relationships.


NSW may be on track in creating a very thorough anti coercive control bill. One that many governments with similar constitutional structure could learn from.

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