Coercive Control as Mitigation at Sentencing

By Professor Vanessa Bettinson

Read the full paper here: Coercive Control as Mitigation at Sentencing

Executive Summary:

• Coercive control is a recognised form of domestic abuse under section 1 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 and it is a criminal offence to engage in controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship under section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015. Domestic abuse disproportionately affects women as victims and this is reflected in the female prison population where research has found that 57% of women in the prison population in England and Wales have been victims of domestic abuse.

• Coercive control by a male intimate partner or relative can directly result in women’s offending. This occurs in a variety of ways such as taking responsibility for a partner’s crime, possession of a controlled substance belonging to an abuser and theft to support a partner’s drug habit, stealing personal items or using violent resistance against the abuser.

• Coercive control has also been linked to women’s reoffending with short custodial sentences leading to financial hardship and homelessness. Access to women’s refuges is limited as female offenders often have complex and multiple needs which make them ineligible for most refuges. Returning to an abuser to avoid homelessness is likely to lead to the continuation of coerced offending. Abusive partners can also prevent a female offender from complying with supervision under a community order by exerting coercive and controlling behaviours on them. In an effort to maintain their safety, the victim-offender can perceive that compliance with the abuser’s demands is their safest option.

• Existing sentencing guidelines do recognise ‘coercion, intimidation or exploitation’ as a mitigating factor in sentencing. It can operate as a factor that lowers the culpability threshold in some offence-specific sentencing guidelines or, alternatively, it can be assessed as personal mitigation in accordance with the Sentencing Council’s ‘General guideline: overarching principles’. This means there is a high potential that coercive control as mitigation in sentencing is not consistently applied to all sentencing decisions.

• The guidelines do not explicitly adopt the term coercive control and sentencers could be limiting their approach to coercion for mitigation purposes to physical forms of coercion. HM Courts and Tribunals ought to apply the statutory guideline that supports the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 at sentencing hearings, however, there is no research on the ability of sentencers to identify coercive control and apply it to sentencing decisions.

• Pre-Sentence Reports (PSRs) are a valuable tool to assist the court in understanding the role coercive control played in the offending, however, there is a reduction in the volume of full written PSRs being requested by courts. In addition, there is no research on the ability of probation officers to identify coercive control and the extent it is included in PSRs.