Controlling and Coercive Behaviour ‘in the Context of Wider Behaviour’

By Adam Dunkley


The Court of Appeal has recently given helpful guidance on those cases alleging controlling and coercive behaviour.

As a criminal offence, it was not introduced until the enactment of s76 Serious Crime Act 2015 and in Family proceedings, PD12J of the FPR. It would be fair to comment that the family court has struggled to keep up.

As practitioners we are all too familiar with making urgent applications for those people who allege being the victim of a physical or verbal attack, but what of those people who find themselves in an emotionally controlling relationship?

Each individual act may not on its own be considered abusive, but we know that abuse can creep up in a relationship and take hold over many years.

Because of this imprecision, there is very little reported case law and unfortunately, busy judges have had to grapple with this complex and intricate issue, often in brief directions hearings or ex-parte applications (usually just before their even busier case list for the day).

The procedure on presenting and defending allegations requires the accusing party to establish ‘an act or pattern of acts’, usually in a court document setting out the allegation (known as a Scott Schedule), when it took place, what help was sought and what happened.

Whilst it would be relatively straightforward to detail a physical assault, a continuing and long-term pattern of controlling behaviour is much harder. The alleging party is therefore in the unfortunate position of having to list five or six examples of behaviour that may span several years.

In F v M [2021] EWFC 4, Mr Justice Hayden commented: ‘Key to assessing abuse in the context of coercive control is recognising that the significance of individual acts may only be understood properly within the context of wider behaviour. I emphasise it is the behaviour and not simply the repetition of individual acts which reveals the real objectives of the perpetrator and thus the true nature of the abuse.’

While refusing to give guidance on the use of Scott Schedules in family cases as a whole, the judge commented that such extreme abuse as seen in this case may not be captured by this formulaic approach. He concluded that where coercive and controlling behaviour is alleged, a traditional Scott Schedule of allegations are ineffective and frequently unsuitable.

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