In family proceedings, including contested children cases or applications for domestic violence injunctions, unfortunately coercive and controlling abuse is a common example of behaviour that is to be relied upon and which the court should take into consideration when dealing with the applications before it. This behaviour is considered by the court at a fact-finding hearing where the court will consider evidence from both parties and make ‘findings’ indicating whether the judge believes the allegations relied upon did or did not happen. Independent third party evidence in support of the allegations is always very helpful to the court, without it the judge has to decide on the evidence put before him which party is actually telling the truth or not.
Coercive behaviour can range from a pattern of acts including 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 can range from 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.
Examples of coercive and controlling behaviour include;
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 to 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;
Preventing a person from having access to transport or from working;
Disclosure of HIV stator or other medical condition without consent.
Do you recognize any of these examples of behaviour? Are you subjected to any of them?
The recent case of F v M illustrates how difficult it is for any victim of coercive and controlling abuse to evidence this type of behaviour in family proceedings given that it an almost hidden area of domestic abuse.
In this case, the evidence was gathered over a three-year period and had amounted to five lever ach files by the time of the fact-finding hearing, which is significantly over the volume of evidence the court allow in these types of proceedings. Attempting to narrow the issues in cases such as this where repetition and patterns must be established in support of the victim’s allegation of being subject to coercive and controlling behaviour is difficult.
What was the background?
The father applied for contact with his two children in October 2017, now aged six and three. The mother opposed contact, alleging the father had subjected her to extreme coercive and controlling behaviour and sexual abuse, amounting to rape. In support of her case, she relied on what she alleged to be similar fact evidence of the father’s relationship with another woman which began soon after the mother left the father. Initially the court would not consider this evidence, because it referred to another woman. The mother successfully appealed this decision, the Court of Appeal permitting the evidence the mother relied on, on the basis it was relevant in the interest of justice.
The matter was listed for a ten-day fact-finding in November 2020, where the court heard from the two families and their relationships with the father. The judge at the fact finding hearing concluded that the consideration of both cases together served to illuminate the sinister, domineering and frequently tyrannising complexion of the father’s behaviour, to a degree which would not have been fully appreciated had the cases been heard separately. It was the chilling repetition of identical behaviours with two very different women of different age and background which cast evidential light in this case.
The parties had begun their relationship in 2013 while attending university together. The father was in the UK on a student visa, while the mother grew up in London. Within weeks of meeting one another, the father started to discuss marriage, which was not disputed.
Allegations of similar fact evidence
There were similarities in each woman’s case, where the father isolated them from their study or work.
The mother alleged that the father:
• began to discourage her from seeing friends and would politely extricate her from their company
• would intervene in her conversations with her family, in particular with her mother
• insisted on her abandoning her studies
• would allege to professionals that the mother was at risk of honour-based violence by her parents
• sent messages to the mother’s family members, purporting to be from her
• took over and controlled the mother physically, emotionally, psychologically and financially
• raped her, probably on more than one occasion
The mother ‘was subjected to a brutalising, dehumanising regime’. The mother was able to flee with her first child in September 2017, while she was pregnant with her second child.
The second relationship
The father quickly formed a new relationship with the second woman in October 2017. She was in her mid-forties and the father in his mid-twenties. The second woman had a longstanding relationship with her children’s father. The second woman and the father met on an internet dating website, which progressed quickly, just as the previous relationship with the mother had done. Soon after, the father discussed marriage and pregnancy which parallels with the mother’s case.
The second woman’s mother alleged that:
• communication became extremely limited after the second woman entered into the relationship with the father
• that her family, in particular her mother, noticed that the father started to monitor her telephone calls and would intervene in their conversations
• the second woman resigned from her job
• the father sent messages to professionals purporting to be from the second woman
• the father made a number of allegations against her family and ex-husband
What did the court decide?
After hearing all the evidence, the judge concluded that he preferred the mother’s evidence and made findings against the father in this case, due to the striking similarities of the two relationships. The judge found the father to be a profoundly dangerous young man, dangerous to women who he identifies as vulnerable and dangerous to children. The risk he presented to women was not only to their emotional and physical wellbeing but also to their sexual safety.
This case shows that the courts will consider such coercive and controlling behaviour as behaviour that needs to be taken into account when deciding what contact the father should have with the children or not.
It is difficult to provide third party evidence to support such behaviour and a lesson to be learnt from this case is to consider discussing concerns about any behaviour you may be subjected to or reporting any health issues which arise as a result, ie anxiety, depression, with professionals, in particular a health professional or your GP, whose independent evidence of your reporting of the behaviour will greatly assist your case.
Help and support is available:
Plymouth Domestic Abuse Service (PDAS) – 0800 458 2558
National Domestic Violence Helpline – 0800 2000 247
Samaritans (24/7 service) – 116 123
National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0800 999 5428