How the Australian courts are tackling coercive control

By Lisa Lahey / 30 March 2021
5 min.
Worthwhile read for: private clients, legal advisors to private individuals, financial advisors to private individuals 

There has been a profound shift in Australian society towards the attitude and recognition of domestic violence. This has been echoed in the Australian courts, with coercive control recently in the spotlight. 

In this article, Partner, Lisa Lahey and Solicitor, Emily Ownsworth discuss what coercive control is and what the family law courts are doing to protect victims. 

Coercive control is a pattern of behaviours, typically strategic in its form and includes threats, humiliation and intimidation. These behaviours are designed to isolate the victim from family, friends and support networks and to deprive them of independence. Common behaviours of coercive control include:

  1. monitoring another person’s phone activity;
  2. monitoring online communications and activities;
  3. taking control over aspects of everyday life including dictating what clothes can be worn, when to sleep and who to spend time with;
  4. depriving access to support services including medical professionals;
  5. denigrating the other person by making comments such as “you are worthless”;
  6. controlling finances; and
  7. making threats. 

This behaviour impacts communities across a wide range of issues, including: 

  • children growing up without learning positive and respectful relationships;
  • higher rates of alcohol and drug dependency;
  • the cost to the economy of assisting people who are experiencing domestic violence; and 
  • the toll of family breakdown. 

Due to the significant increase of reported incidents such as these, there has been a call for domestic violence, including coercive control, to be recognised as a national emergency and, consequently as a community crisis. 

In order to combat this ever-growing problem, the family law courts have implemented a new project called The Lighthouse Project. The Lighthouse Project has been designed to assist families in navigating the family law system where the litigant has experienced domestic violence, in any form, or where there are safety concerns to a party or children. The Lighthouse Project aims to illuminate risk and provide support to families experiencing (or at risk) of domestic violence.

The Lighthouse Project is currently being piloted in the Adelaide, Brisbane and Parramatta family law registries. If the project is successful, it will be rolled out nationally. 

For a case to be suitable for the Lighthouse Project, it needs to involve only parenting issues and the application needs to be filed in one of the pilot registries. Each matter that satisfies the requirements of the Lighthouse Project will then be assessed as follows:

  1. Early risk screening through an online program that is secure and confidential. This is known as the Family Detection Of Overall Risk Screen (DOORS) Triage. Any information or documents that are provided by the litigant during the risk screening process cannot be used as evidence in court and cannot be requested by the other party throughout the proceedings. This protection also extends to reports prepared, recommendations made or referrals created by a family safety risk screening person such as a family counsellor. The Family DOORS Triage is a short questionnaire that helps provide the court with information about the circumstances of a case. The questionnaire is to be completed by the litigant and not a lawyer.
  2. Assessment and triage of cases by a specialised team, who will provide resources and a safe and suitable case management pathway. At this stage the matter will be identified in the traffic light system; low risk, medium risk or high risk. The available options will be discussed, and a case management pathway will be provided which can include referrals to other services or counsellors.
  3. Ongoing case management is then required. The goal is to gather information as early as possible and avoid unnecessary court events, irrespective of risk classification. Once a referral or recommendation is made to the Registrar, they are able to make orders and progress the matter. 
  4. Cases which are identified as high-risk will be assigned to a dedicated court list, known as the Evatt List. The Evatt List focuses on early information gathering and intervention through a judge-led support team. For the court to determine if a matter is appropriate for the Evatt list they will consider; allegations of serious abuse, family violence, drug and alcohol misuse, mental health issues, risk of self-harm, threats to abduct a child and threats to harm another person relevant to the proceedings. 

The Lighthouse Project is the Court’s response to calls for the family law system to better address and respond to family violence and safety risks. In addition to the Lighthouse Project, the Queensland Government has announced plans to set up an independent taskforce to consult on potential coercive control legislation. If you are currently subject to behaviours that appear to be coercive control or another form of domestic violence you should seek legal advice to assess the options available to you. 

For further information, please contact our Family and Relationship Law team.

Lisa Lahey
Lisa is a Partner in our Family and Relationship law practice with over 25 years of experience advising on all facets of family law, including complex property and children’s matters.

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