Australia: Work on national approach to coercive control to begin at attorneys-general meeting in Melbourne

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Sue and Lloyd Clarke, the parents of Hannah Clarke, have campaigned for more action on coercive control.  (ABC News: Alexander Lewis) © Provided by ABC NEWS Sue and Lloyd Clarke, the parents of Hannah Clarke, have campaigned for more action on coercive control.  (ABC News: Alexander Lewis)

State and territory attorneys-general are to meet with federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus on Friday to debate whether to criminalise coercive control across the nation.

Coercive control — a form of domestic and family violence — refers to patterns of abusive behaviours used by one person to dominate and control another in a relationship, which can leave victims feeling powerless, isolated and a hostage in their own home.

Families of those victims and case workers have welcomed the federal government's push for a national understanding of the term.

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States and territories are at different stages of considering whether to criminalise coercive control in their own jurisdictions.

Mr Dreyfus said Friday's meeting of the nation's first law officers in Melbourne would see the first steps towards a nationally consistent approach.

"We know from early research that coercive control is an extremely common feature of abusive relationships, but it is not always well understood across the community," Mr Dreyfus told the ABC.

"There are some differences [between jurisdictions], which is why reaching agreement — at least at a draft level — on what are national principles to address coercive control, is a really good step forward."

Queensland and New South Wales have already moved to criminalise coercive control, while Victoria and Tasmania say existing laws cover the offences.

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  Women's safety forefront of top legal meet Australia's attorneys-general will meet in Canberra to discuss nationally consistent laws to prevent and respond to coercive control and sexual assault.New Zealand Minister for Justice Kiri Allan will also attend Friday's meeting in Canberra to provide a trans-Tasman focus.

Other states have expressed in-principle support for new laws or a nationally consistent approach.

Mr Dreyfus said having a national consensus would lead to a higher level of understanding and the possibility of remaining jurisdictions criminalising the behaviours.

"We are hoping that, at [Friday's] meeting, we are going to be able to approve for release national principles to address coercive control and we think that will help get to a coordinated national approach," he said.

"It won't necessarily be that every state will get to criminalising this behaviour, but if we can get to a much wider understanding in the community of what this is, that will help our ultimate aim of keeping women and children safe."

National push welcomed by father of domestic violence victim

The move towards a national framework has been welcomed by the father of Hannah Clarke, who was murdered, along with her three children, by her estranged husband.

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Lloyd Clarke said he always knew something was wrong, but wasn't familiar with the term coercive control at the time.

"There were no physical marks but we knew there were mental marks," Mr Clarke said.

"He was trying to control her mentally. Wanting to know where she was, even asking the children."

When he was subsequently told this amounted to coercive control, Mr Clarke and his wife, Sue, launched a campaign for Queensland to criminalise the behaviour.

"We thought, 'Well, we didn't know about it so there must be a lot of people out there who don't know about coercive control and we need to educate people on that'," Mr Clarke told the ABC.

After the Clarke family's campaign, Queensland committed to criminalising coercive behaviour with a pledge to have laws in place by 2023.

Mr Clarke said he was "ecstatic" to hear that state and territory attorneys-general were willing to work together on the issue.

"It's another step ahead of our [state-based] campaign and that's great," Mr Clarke said.

Coercive control often hard to prove to authorities, counsellor says

Kirrilly Salvestro — a domestic violence counsellor working in western New South Wales — said a national approach would improve clarity between states.

However, she said, providing evidence of coercive behaviour was notoriously difficult, particularly in states that are looking to criminalise and punish the behaviour.

"For example, isolation from friends and family: How do you prove that to authorities?" Ms Salvestro said.

"How do you prove that your partner may have been monitoring your activity unless you have a way to prove that they have been bugging your phone or putting trackers on your vehicles?"

Ms Salvestro — who is deputy chief executive officer of the Linking Communities Network — said it was important for any national definition to reflect the scale of the damage caused.

"In any discussion, we need to make sure that we get it right the first time," Ms Salvestro said.

"[We need] to include everything that needs to be encompassed and the recognition that children are involved in coercive control as well, all that needs to be included."

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