Chapter 2
Understanding family violence

Evolving understanding

2.42Visibility of family violence, most particularly intimate partner violence, and the legal protection of victims is relatively recent and still evolving.72

“Battered woman syndrome”

2.43In the 1970s, a literature developed on the psychological, social and economic aspects of family violence. Key to this was Dr Lenore Walker’s work on “battered woman syndrome”, which applied the cycle of violence and learned helplessness theories to battered women.73
2.44Unifying Dr Walker’s theory, which has been criticised on various grounds, including that it defines women by reference to victimisation,74 is the proposition that “women stay with abusive men because they are rendered helpless and dependent by violence”.75 Like other conceptions of “battering”, it is incident focused, emphasising the type and number of assaults (or other coercive acts).76
2.45The language of “battering” is still in use and popularly understood, albeit battered woman syndrome (now sometimes called battered person syndrome) is problematic and has been discredited.77

A focus on “coercion and control”Top

2.46A more recent understanding, explored in-depth by American researcher Evan Stark and by others, is that family violence – particularly by men against women – often involves “coercive control”. Coercive control includes non-physical harm, behaviours intended to isolate and frighten victims and cumulative, not just discrete, effects.78 Not all family violence can be explained this way, but coercive and controlling behaviours are “prototypical” in IPV cases and help explain why victims stay in abusive relationships.79 Further, while coercive control has been applied and discussed principally in connection with IPV, non-intimate family relationships may also involve behaviours of coercion and control.80
2.47Stark has said that women with whom he has worked “[insist] that ‘violence isn’t the worst part’ of the abuse they experience”.81 We discuss below how family violence is more than physical assaults and isolates and entraps victims.82
72As to which, see Stark, above n 61, at 142–145. See also Martha Mahoney “Legal Images of Battered Women: Redefining the Issue of Separation” (1991) 90 Michigan Law Review 96 at 27.
73See, Law Commission Battered Defendants: Victims of Domestic Violence Who Offend (NZLC PP41, 2000) at ch 2.
74Elizabeth Sheehy, Julie Stubbs and Julia Tolmie “Securing Fair Outcomes for Battered Women Charged with Homicide: Analysing Defence Lawyering in R v Falls” (2014) 38 Melbourne University Law Review 666 at n 2. See also Law Commission, above n 73, at 5.
75Stark, above n 61, at 120.
76Mahoney, above n 72, at 28–32.
77As discussed in Law Commission, above n 7. See also Sheehy, Stubbs and Tolmie, above n 74, at n 2.
78Stark, above n 61.
79At 12. See also Evan Stark “Re-presenting Battered Women: Coercive Control and the Defense of Liberty” (paper presented to Violence Against Women: Complex Realities and New Issues in a Changing World, Quebec, Canada, 2012) at 7: “The primary outcome of coercive control is a condition of entrapment that can be hostage-like in the harms it inflicts on dignity, liberty, autonomy and personhood as well as to physical and psychological integrity”.
80See, for example, “Strengthening the Law on Domestic Abuse Consultation - Summary of Responses”, above n 50. In a consultation on the proposed enactment of a new offence of domestic abuse to criminalise patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour, the Home Office received submissions on the “the importance of any new offence capturing inter-familial abuse as well as intimate partner abuse” and noted that, while some respondents considered coercive control is limited to intimate partner relationships, others had submitted it was not and that such behaviours may affect other victims, including the elderly (at 9). As enacted, the offence of “controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship” applies both to people in intimate personal relationships and family members who live together (Serious Crime Act 2015 (UK), s 76).
81Stark, above n 79, at 16.
82Family Violence Death Review Committee, above n 2, at 71.