Coercion, Control and Criminal Responsibility: Exploring Professional Responses to Offending and Suicidality in the Context of Domestically Abusive Relationships

Published date01 June 2024
AuthorVanessa E. Munro,Vanessa Bettinson,Mandy Burton
Date01 June 2024
Subject MatterArticles
Coercion, Control and
Criminal Responsibility:
Exploring Professional
Responses to Offending and
Suicidality in the Context of
Domestically Abusive
Vanessa E. Munro
University of Warwick, UK
Vanessa Bettinson
De Montfort University, UK
Mandy Burton
University of Leicester, UK
Signif‌icant strides have been made in the laws recognition of harms arising from domes-
tic abuse. In England and Wales, the Serious Crimes Act 2015, and in Scotland, the
Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018, have supported a more holistic understanding
of the dynamics of abuse and the means by which coercion and control are deployed
to cement and supplant perpetratorsviolence. In this article, we explore what the
introduction of these offences means in other situations where questions regarding
the impact of abuse upon victimsagency arise: specif‌ically, where victims commit an
offence that might have been compelled by abusive behaviour or take their own lives
in contexts that might indicate perpetratorsliability for suicide. In particular, drawing
on interviews with professionals across both jurisdictions, we highlight the precarity
Corresponding author:
Vanessa E. Munro, Warwick Law School, University of Warwick, Coventry, CV4 7AL, UK.
Social & Legal Studies
2024, Vol. 33(3) 392419
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/09646639231198342
of recognition of the effects of coercive control and the need to engage in more com-
plicated discussions about when and why context matters.
Coercive control, domestic abuse, victims as offenders, duress, self-defence, liability for
In the past decade, signif‌icant strides have been made, across many jurisdictions, in the
criminal laws recognition of, and capacity to respond to, harms arising in the context of
domestic abuse that do not fall within pre-existing frameworks for criminalising physical
or sexual violence. This has been advocated by many domestic abuse specialists for some
time, based on well-established understandings of the complex operation of abusive
behaviour, the dynamics of control and violence through which it functions, and the
insidious nature of its negative effects upon victims (Scott, 2020). Legislative innovation
has now created the potential for this more holistic understanding to receive increased
legal recognition in particular, by criminalising patterns of coercion and control
which manifest through forms of emotional abuse, f‌inancial control, or orchestrated sur-
veillance or social isolation, and operate to cement, support and even supplant the use by
perpetrators of physical violence.
In England and Wales, this framework was initiated via section 76 of the Serious
Crimes Act 2015 (hereafter SCA), which established an offence where a person (i)
repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards another to whom they are per-
sonally connected that is controlling or coercive, (ii) that behaviour had a serious effect
on the other person such that it caused them serious alarm or distress having a substantial
adverse effect on their daily activities or causing them to fear on at least two occasions
that violence would be used against them, and (iii) the perpetrator knew, or ought to
have known, that the behaviour would have this serious effect on the person to whom
it was directed. Though investigative and prosecutorial backlogs have impacted the
justice journeys of domestic abuse survivors substantially during the Covid-19 pandemic
and its aftermath (Nott, 2022), there is evidence of growing utilisation of this offence
since its implementation. In 2019/20, for example, police in England and Wales recorded
24,856 section 76 offences, which compares to a total of 4246 in 2016/17, with an
increase of 18% in the rate of cases proceeding to prosecution in 2019 compared to
the previous year (ONS, 2022). Equally, however, concerns remain regarding its mar-
ginal usage in the wider context of the overall volume of domestic abuse-related incidents
reported to police in England and Wales (Barlow et al., 2020; Myhill et al., 2022).
Robinson et al. (2018) have documented diff‌iculties with the appropriateness of exist-
ing risk assessment tools as well as with the attitudes of frontline police off‌icers who
utilise those tools, which they suggest are likely to undermine the potential of the
section 76 offence. More recently, Barlow et al. (2020) have noted that further training
and resourcing are needed in England and Wales to ensure the effective identif‌ication
Munro et al. 393

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