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How do the family courts deal with coercive control – the impact of case of F v M [2021] EWFC 4

What is Coercive Control?

It is a form of domestic abuse. It is not specifically defined nor confined to any particular form of behaviour. It can be a singular act or a pattern. It can include violence or threats of violence as well as humiliation or intimidation. It can include isolating someone from friends/family, exploiting their resources or regulating their behaviour. Whatever form it takes, it can be extremely damaging for victims, family members and, perhaps most sadly, for any associated children.

Where has the phrase Coercive Control come from?

Coercive control was specifically introduced into the definition of domestic abuse in September 2012 by the then coalition government.

Whilst recognised and criminalised under various legislation, coercive and controlling behaviour did not become a criminal offence in itself until 2015.

How is Coercive Control treated in the Criminal Courts?

The offence under section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 carries a maximum sentence of 5 years’ imprisonment, a fine or both. It can be prosecuted alone or alongside other offences such as battery, assault, sexual offences etc.

How does this differ from the Family Courts?

Coercive control usually comes before the Family Courts in two instances: applications involving children and applications for injunctive protection from domestic violence.

In both cases, the Family Court will need to establish whether or not coercive control has taken place. In contrast to the criminal courts, the standard of proof is on the balance of probabilities, meaning that the court seeks to establish whether it is more likely than not that the incident(s) took place. The criminal court has a higher burden – it must be ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ that the offence is satisfied.

The Family Court will usually gather evidence first by way of the applicant producing a statement and ‘Scott Schedule’ – this document summarises all of the various incidents alleged to have taken place, and will be completed with the applicant’s version of events, the respondent’s version and, often, the court’s finding. Later, the court will hear oral evidence from both parties who will each have an opportunity to cross-examine the other on their evidence.

What happened in the case of F v M [2021] EWFC 4?

In summary, the husband was accused of coercive control towards the wife for a 3 year period. Evidence was also admitted relating to another partner of the husband’s, who had also accused him of coercive control during their relationship.

At a fact-finding hearing, the Judge heard evidence and made findings determining that nearly all the incidents alleged by the wife had taken place.

The Judge commented on the use of Scott Schedules and was critical as to their use in cases involving coercive control, essentially stating that the ‘formulaic discipline’ of a Scott Schedule may not easily capture the significance of a pattern of events taking place over a number of years, rather than specific incidents of assault, for example, which can easily be particularised.

What does this mean for the future of children or domestic violence cases in the Family Court?

Hawkins Family Law are family law specialists, meaning we have years of experience with cases regarding divorce, separation, family matters and more. If you are looking for reliable and accredited legal advice regarding a family law matter, speak to one of our team today.

Practitioners have speculated that use of Scott Schedules may decline following this case. The schedules originally came about from building disputes and some say are not fit for purpose in family proceedings. However, they can also be of great assistance in certain cases where there are distinct, singular criminal offences. It is clear that, if they are no longer to be used, there will need to be some replacement mechanism for particularising allegations and evidence. Guidance is eagerly awaited from the Court of Appeal.

Having graduated in July 2017 with a first class honours degree in law from the University of Bedfordshire, Holly has since been exploring her interest in Family Law. She is currently undertaking her postgraduate LPC and masters course to qualify as a family solicitor. Holly joined Hawkins Family Law in August 2017. She has previously volunteered with public legal advice services and currently is enjoying a new challenge having recently begun a paralegal role at Hawkins Family Law.

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