New ruling on coercive control in children act cases

Hope for many caught in a painful and often secretive form of domestic abuse that can be hard to evidence.

Coercive control is a term that appears all too frequently in children act cases and as a family lawyer, I am particularly happy to welcome the new judgment of Justice Hayden in the case of F v M [2021] EWFC 4. This will hopefully offer guidance to victims in understanding what is happening to them, how they and the authorities can identify it, prove it and reach a potentially positive and life-changing outcome.

This 2017 case is built around the father’s application to spend time with his two young children and proceedings began earlier that year; it was a complex case indeed with Justice Hayden being the 16th Judge to preside over the case.

Here is a brief chronological timeline of the relationship between the mother and father of the children history:

July 2014: The mother (M) and father (F) met whilst students at university, but the mother was ‘persuaded’ by the father to ‘drop out’ of tertiary education. They were later wed without the knowledge of her family and the birth of their two children followed.

Sept 2017: They separated and the mother was supported fully by her parents who were grateful for the split and had been deeply worried about their daughter for a long period of time.

July 2018: The father remarried and gained two step-children. Similar behaviours were demonstrated in this second marriage and family unit and were identified by his first wife.

Throughout proceedings, the mother maintained she had always been a victim of cohesive and controlling behaviour at the hand of the father during their relationship. She wanted to introduce to the court evidence of abuse suffered by the father’s new wife that mirrored her own ordeal but unfortunately, the Judge at first instance disallowed the introduction of any evidence pertaining to the father’s new wife. This was successfully appealed in the Court of Appeal, and the case was transferred to the High Court. The new wife remained adamantly loyal and refused to acknowledge or accept she was a victim of abuse, despite compelling evidence. She paid the price for this loyalty by her children being removed from her and given over to the care of their biological father.

Justice Hayden concluded that:

“The consideration of both “cases” together served to illuminate the sinister, domineering and, frequently, tyrannising complexion of F’s behaviour, to a degree which would not have been fully appreciated had the cases been severed. It is the chilling repetition of identical behaviours, with two very different women of different age and background, which casts evidential light and does so in each individual case.”

The Judge went on to describe the father as:

A profoundly dangerous young man, dangerous to women who he identifies as vulnerable and dangerous to children. The risks he presents to women are not only to their emotional and physical well-being but also, in the light of my findings, to their sexual safety. It is clear that he has the capacity to cause much harm and distress to those who cross him more generally, particularly those within the sphere of the women he controls. It has been a disturbing case to hear.”

Whilst he stated there is no hard and fast legal definition of coercive and controlling behaviour, it is of little surprise that legal system has, in the past, failed to deal with cases of coercive control appropriately; he called for greater awareness and more focused training for the relevant professionals and summarised these abusive behaviours as follows:

Coercive behaviour:

A pattern of acts;
Such acts will be characterised by assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation but are not confined to this and may appear in other guises;
The objective of these acts is to harm, punish or frighten the victim.

Controlling behaviour:

A pattern of acts;
Designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent;
Achieved by isolating them from support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of their means of independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday activities.

Justice Hayden also referred to Home Office Guidance published pursuant to Section 77 (1) of the Serious Crime Act 2015, which sets out examples of behaviour which could be coercive and controlling, including:

Isolating a person from their friends and family
Monitoring their time
Monitoring a person via online communication tools or using spyware
Taking control over aspects of their everyday life, such as where they can go, who they can see, what they can eat, what they wear and when they can sleep
Depriving them access to support services, such as specialist support or medical services
Repeatedly putting them down such as telling them they are worthless
Enforcing rules and activity which humiliate, degrade or dehumanise the victim
Forcing the victim to take part in criminal activity such as shoplifting, neglect or abuse of children to encourage self-blame and prevent disclosure to authorities
Financial abuse including control of finances, such as only allowing a person a punitive allowance
Control ability to go to school or place of study
Threats to hurt or kill
Threats to harm a child
Threats to reveal or publish private information (e.g. threatening to ‘out’ someone)
Preventing a person from having access to transport or from working
Disclosure of HIV status or other medical condition without consent

He reinforced that this type of abuse is often tailored to individual circumstances and this list should be used as a guidance checklist only. He also highlighted the need for professionals to be more aware of the current and future issues coercive control abuse causes. Hopefully now, cases that are brought to court will be guided by this latest judgment and can go some way to ending the misery of many victims and their families.

If you find yourself, or someone you care for, in a relationship involving coercive and controlling behaviours, Sheryl Perry Solicitors is here to help and support you. With professional legal representation in this area of expertise, you can be assured you will be in the safest of hands.

For a free and confidential discussion, please contact us today.

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