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Understanding Queensland’s Coercive Control Laws

While we think the upcoming coercive control laws have some operational issues, it’s important for everyone to understand the potential impact that these laws are going to have.

So, in this article we set out the fundamentals of Queensland’s Coercive Control legislation and how the new offence is going to work.

When do Coercive Control Laws come into Force in Queensland?

The new coercive control laws in Queensland come into force on a date “to be fixed by proclamation” which hasn’t happened just yet (as at May 2024).

Most people expect the laws to come into force some time in 2025, presumably after some extensive advertising and education campaigns by the Queensland Government.

What, Exactly, is Happening with Coercive Control?

A law is being passed which inserts a new series of sections in the Criminal Code in Queensland.

These sections are (mostly) going to be in a new chapter of the Criminal Code. It will be in Part 5, Chapter 29A of the Code.

Chapter 29A introduces a new offence, called a “coercive control offence”.

The new Chapter then sets out the various definitions and requirements for that offence to be made out.

What Needs to be Proven to be Found Guilty of Coercive Control?

A coercive control offence occurs if:

  1. an adult is in a domestic relationship with another person;
  2. the first person (adult) engages in a course of conduct against the other person that consists of two or more occasions of “domestic violence”;
  3. the first person intends that course of conduct to “coerce or control” the other person; and
  4. the course of conduct would, in all the circumstances, be reasonably likely to cause the other person harm.

All four of these things must exist for the offence to be made out. So let’s dig in a little bit more and see what we can figure out about each element.

An Adult in a Domestic Relationship

So first, we need the relevant person (alleged offender) to be an “adult” in a “domestic relationship”.

Defining an “adult” is fairly straightforward: the Criminal Code defines an “Adult” as a person of or above the age of 18 years.

You might also notice from the phrasing that only an Adult can be the perpetrator of coercive control. However, the person they are in a domestic relationship does not need to be an “adult” – they just need to be a person.

Then we need to figure out what a domestic relationship is.

This is slightly more cumbersome, because the Criminal Code points us to the definition of a “relevant relationship” under section 13 of the Domestic and Family Violence Protection Act 2012, which in turn provides a series of definitions within definitions.  A “relevant relationship” is:

  1. an intimate personal relationship, which in turn means any of:
    • a spousal relationship, which is defined as something that “exists between spouses” and includes a marriage or defacto relationship (which requires us to look at yet another act, but that will do for this article). It also includes a former spouse, and a parent or former parent of a child of the person; or
    • an “engagement” relationship, which means essentially what you think it means – two people who are (or were) engaged to be married to each other, including under cultural or religious traditions; or
    • a couple relationship, which is a large and complicated definition defined to figure out if two people have a serious enough relationship (not otherwise covered by (a) or (b)) that should be treated in a similar way as spousal or engagement.
  2. a family relationship, which is where they are relatives by blood or marriage as that term is ordinarily understood; or
  3. an informal care relationship, which is where one person is dependant on the other for help in daily living activities (other than a child and parent or a commercial care arrangement).

So, there are a broad range of circumstances that might capture the idea of a “domestic relationship” for coercive control. That said, most of them are fairly intuitive. Basically if you would think of it normally as a domestic relationship, it probably is for the purposes of coercive control.

The Criminal Code amendments also make it clear that an intimate personal relationship includes a former intimate personal relationship. This special gloss applies only for the definition for the Criminal Code sections only, but not for other purposes.

With that all in mind, let’s take an example.

Alex (19) lived in a de facto relationship with Susie (17) for 12 months. They have a child together after which they broke up. Based on our definitions above, Alex is in a “domestic personal relationship” with Susie, including the time after they broke up. Once Susie is 18, she will be an “adult” and therefore treated as being in a domestic personal relationship with Alex and their child from that time forward.

Domestic Violence

We’re going to run through what constitutes “domestic violence” for the coercive control legislation at a high level here, with a more detailed analysis to follow later.

Firstly, domestic violence can take place only within the confines of a “domestic relationship”, so it is important to understand the section above.

Otherwise, it means any behaviour towards a person that is:

  1. physically or sexually abusive;
  2. emotionally or psychologically abusive;
  3. economically abusive;
  4. threatening;
  5. coercive;
  6. in any other way controls or dominates the second person and causes the second person to fear for their safety or wellbeing or that of somebody else.

So as you can see the definition is quite broad.

The coercive control definition goes on to specifically include a long list of behaviours that are “domestic violence”.

These specific definitions of domestic violence only apply to the offence of coercive control.

Here are some of the ones that have unclear scope and meaning, so are worth being aware of:

  1. unauthorised surveillance of a person – depending what “surveillance” means, this could cover a range of activities;
  2. monitoring a person’s day-to-day activities – this is probably connected with the “surveillance” example above, but could capture quite a range of activities;
  3. restricting a person’s freedom of action – while this is understandably targeted at certain types of overly controlling behaviour, the broad phrasing would seem to include things like “grounding” a child for misbehaviour though it’s not clear if this is intended or not;
  4. punishing a person – no definition of “punishing” has been provided to help elaborate what might fall within this language.
  5. frightening a person – again, while this seems to be aimed at inappropriate intimidating behaviours, the broad language and lack of threshold about the degree of “fright” required could readily seem to capture innocent pranks or games that involved someone being scared for a moment.

Does it “Coerce or Control”?

So we’ve given some specific examples of “domestic violence” above that seem to push the boundaries of what has traditionally fallen within that phrase. Each of them clearly has a type of behaviour in mind, but the phrasing and lack of definitions leave some feeling overly broad.

That said, to be caught by this legislation, the behaviour in question needs to have the added intention – that is, the person needs to “intend” the conduct to coerce or control the other person.

That requirement could then potentially filter out relatively innocent behaviours that might otherwise be caught by the offence.

Unfortunately, there are again concepts and phrases used that simply aren’t appropriately defined.

“Coerce” is defined to mean “compel or force a person to do, or refrain from doing, something”.

Control is undefined. The dictionary suggests that (when used as a verb) it might range between “having influence or authority over” through to “regulate”. In all, it’s a broad term that could apply to any number of situations, including some that are probably unintended.

Importantly, the relevant behaviour need only be intended to “coerce” OR “control”.

This leaves us wondering why the word “coerce” is in the legislation at all, given that “control” is a very broad term and would seem to capture everything that “coerce” would.

What is “Harm”?

Our final requirement is that the “the course of conduct would, in all the circumstances, be reasonably likely to cause the other person harm”.

Notice carefully that the conduct does not need to actually cause harm. The alleged course of conduct only needs to be “reasonably likely” to cause harm.

Next, it is not necessary that each individual alleged act of “domestic violence” could reasonably cause the harm – just that the entire course of conduct might.

With that in mind, here is the definition of “harm”:

Any detrimental effect on the person’s physical, emotional, financial, psychological or mental wellbeing, whether temporary or permanent.

None of the key terms in this definition are, themselves, defined.

The most important undefined word is probably “detrimental”, since it is the doorway to all of the other terms.

What constitutes a “detrimental” effect on your emotions, for example? Is sadness detrimental? Is “fear of missing out” detrimental? If I am worried by something, is that detrimental to my mental wellbeing?

Given that this legislation is introducing a criminal offence, the proper and clear definition of what constitutes “harm” was a critical piece of this legislation.

We cannot help but conclude that the current drafting misses the mark completely. It is almost certainly going to require amendment or significant clarification on its operation, because as currently drafted it potentially captures an enormous range of normal day to day experiences.

What is the Penalty for the Coercive Control Offence?

The maximum penalty for the offence of coercive control in Queensland is 14 years imprisonment.

What to Do?

We would like to think that the enforcement of the coercive control legislation will be restrained, appropriate and limited to those cases where it is legitimately warranted.

However, there is a real risk that the overly broad or vague definitions are going to be weaponised by some sectors.

That being the case, arming yourself with the necessary information to ensure that you don’t inadvertently cross the line into coercive control is going to be your best response to this new legislation.