Research and impact | By Cassandra Wiener

How laws against coercive control still fail to protect female victims

In 2012 comedian Justin Lee Collins was convicted of harassment of his then girlfriend, Anna Larke. The case attracted considerable attention because of his bizarre demands.


Collins controlled how Larke slept; he demanded she delete her Facebook account. She was not allowed access to email. She was only allowed to look at inanimate objects (such as a tree, the ground, a bench) when they were out together (never another man). Details of all of her previous sexual relationships were logged and used to belittle her. So-called ‘low-level’ physical violence occurred daily. She lived in terror of what he might do next.


Media coverage described how the public were getting access to something novel, dark and important. While the demands were insidious and significant, they were not novel. They were in fact typical of what has come to be known as coercive control.


“Coercive control can best be understood as a strategy of domination where an abusive perpetrator governs all aspects of his victim’s life” explains Dr Cassandra Weiner, Senior Lecturer in Law specialising in the criminalisation of domestic abuse, particularly coercive control.


“We now know that Larke had good reason to be frightened. Coercive control is dangerous, and its victims know and fear this. Control is a better indicator of risk of death than the existence of physical violence in a relationship – this is because control escalates, and a perpetrator can resort to killing his partner, particularly if he thinks there is a risk she might escape. Often he will tell her this: ‘if you leave me, I will find you and kill you’. She might have good reason to believe him, and this knowledge cements her sense of entrapment. She stays because she knows what might happen if she does not”.

Dr Cassandra Wiener on the ground floor of The City Law School Building.

In 2015, coercive control became a criminal offence in England and Wales, making it the first major state in the world to legislate it. Police tell us they see this as a progressive step, allowing them to intervene at an earlier point in an abusive relationship, and to tackle insidious offending that previously would not have been a crime. Yet nearly seven years on, women are still dying in unacceptably high numbers. Possibly for reasons related to the pandemic and accompanying lock-downs, domestic homicides have been at an all-time high; up to three women are losing their lives in this way each week. Less well reported, is that between four and ten abuse victims commit suicide every week. So why hasn’t the new law on coercive control stopped women in such large numbers losing their lives? What is not happening and why?


One off the difficulties with the new law is that it does not go far enough. Coercive control is instead mis-framed and research shows that only a fraction of cases involving coercive control are being investigated as such by the police. A failure to identify coercive control at the earliest opportunity often has tragic consequences. Anna Larke found the resources to keep herself safe in that she managed to separate from Justin Lee Collins. Unfortunately, many women experiencing control do not – and unless we improve the legislative position, this is likely to continue to be the case, at least in England and Wales.