Controlling or Coercive Behaviour- Statutory Guidance Framework

‘Coercive control creates invisible chains and a sense of fear that pervades all elements of a victim’s life.’

Last month, the Home Office published statutory guidance on the crime of controlling or coercive behaviour. The framework provides a wealth of information on the statutory offence, as well as guidance on reducing the risk of harm and supporting victims and their families. This blog focuses on the key elements of the offence.

What is controlling and coercive behaviour?

Abuse within a relationship can take on countless forms and does not have to manifest itself physically. Section 76 of the Serious Crimes Act 2015 sought to strengthen the criminal justice response to abuse in an intimate or family relationship.

A person (A) commits on offence of controlling or coercive behaviour if they:

  • repeatedly or continuously engage in behaviour towards another person (B) that is controlling or coercive,
  • at the time of the behaviour, A and B are personally connected,
  • the behaviour has a serious effect on B, and
  • A knows or ought to know that the behaviour will have a serious effect on B.

‘Personally connected’

Section 68 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 requires the perpetrator and the victim to fall within one of the following categories:

  • married or civil partners
  • previously married or civil partners
  • have agreed to marry
  • have entered into a civil partnership agreement
  • have been in an intimate personal relationship
  • have or have previously had a parental relation to the same child; or
  • they are relatives within the scope of Section 63 of the Family Law Act

The definition of ‘personally connected’ has been amended to remove the requirement that the victim and perpetrator must be living together. This amendment came into force on 5 April 2023 and does not apply retrospectively.

The scope of the offence is broadened significantly by this amendment, recognising that controlling and coercive behaviour can commence, persist, and often worsen, after a relationship ends and the victim and perpetrator stop living together.

In a review of domestic homicide and victim suicide conducted between April 2021 and March 2022, the relationship had ended, or there was a threat of a relationship ending, prior to the homicide in 19% of intimate partner case submissions.

The amendment also acknowledges that the offence can exist where the victim and perpetrator have never lived together at all.  

‘Repeatedly or continuously’

The offence must be occurring or have occurred on an ongoing basis i.e. on two or more occasions. A one-off occasion will not amount to coercive or controlling behaviour.

Behaviour that takes place on two occasions, but over a prolonged period, may not amount to repeated or continuous behaviour. However, that is not to say other forms of abuse, and other crimes, have not occurred through the perpetrators one off actions.  

‘Coercive or controlling’

Coercive or controlling behaviour can take on many forms. The pattern of behaviour the perpetrator exerts may intend to hurt, humiliate, intimidate, isolate or dominate their victims.

Examples of controlling or coercive behaviour may include:

  • physical violence and threats,
  • physical intimidation (for example hitting walls, blocking doors),
  • sexual assault or coercion,
  • constant criticism,
  • posting unwanted messages on social media,
  • controlling the victim’s day to day activities,
  • economic abuse,
  • isolating the victim from family and friends, and
  • threats of exposure of sensitive information.

These examples are far from exhaustive but demonstrate a range of behaviours that fall within the scope of the offence.

‘Serious effect’

The perpetrators behaviour must have a ‘serious effect’ on the victim which requires (i) violence to be used against the victim or two or more occasions, and/or (ii) the behaviour to have caused serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on the victim’s usual day to day activities.

Importantly, violence, or threats of violence, do not need to be present for the effects of such behaviour be considered serious. Examples of non-violent, serious effects may include stopping or changing the way someone socialises, being deprived access to phone, internet usage or medication, restrictions on financial independence or emotional and psychological harms including anxiety and depression.

‘Knows or ought to know’

This element of the offence seeks to restrict a perpetrator from pleading naivety.  Whether the perpetrator ‘ought to know’ of the serious effects of their actions means that which a reasonable person in possession of the same information ought to know.

The Defence

Section 76(8) and 76(10) provide a defence where the defendant believes he or she was acting in the best interests of the victim and that the behaviour in all circumstances was reasonable.

It is important to consider the defence alongside the backdrop of the ‘ought to know’ requirement of the offence and the reasonableness test in the defence. This dual layer of objectivity means a perpetrator cannot rely on the defence where a reasonable person with access to the same information would not believe the perpetrators behaviour was reasonable. It is not enough to simply say ‘I think it was in their best interests.’


If you are a victim of controlling or coercive behaviour, specialist therapists and counsellors can offer invaluable support. There are also several national organisations identified in the statutory guidance that can provide support, including:

How can we help?

At Mills & Reeve, we know that clients impacted by any form of domestic abuse require sensitive and tailored advice and support. Our specialist team are nationally recognised for their work with survivors of domestic abuse and controlling and coercive behaviour. If you wish to speak to a member of our team who specialise in domestic abuse allegations, please contact us today.

Our content explained

Every piece of content we create is correct on the date it’s published but please don’t rely on it as legal advice. If you’d like to speak to us about your own legal requirements, please contact one of our expert lawyers.

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