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 What is coercive control?

What is coercive control?

Understanding coercive control: signs, effects, and legal advice for victims of domestic abuse.


Introduction to coercive control

Coercive control – it is a term used to define a wide range of behaviours that can often be invisible to third parties. It is an act or pattern of acts such as assault, threats, humiliation, and intimidation that abusers use to harm, punish or frighten their victims. It can be used to exploit a victim, deprive them of their independence and to maintain power and control over their day-to-day life. It is often a purposeful pattern of behaviour which takes place over time for one individual to exert power, control or coercion over another.

Impact on victims – This type of behaviour is designed to make a victim dependent on their abuser, by isolating them from support, such as their friends or family. Examples of control may include things such as access to food, money, ability to speak to others, access to professional services and stalking behaviours. Coercive control is a criminal offence.

From a legal perspective, Coercive Control is a form of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is a term used to describe a wide range of incidents involving unlawful behaviour that takes place between two individuals who have been involved in a relationship with one another. Although domestic abuse is most prevalent between couples or separated couples, domestic abuse can also occur between family members. In Scotland, Domestic Abuse is a criminal offence. The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 widened the definition of abuse to include, physical abuse, sexual violence, psychological or financial abuse. The offence can carry a maximum of 14 years imprisonment.

Accredited specialists

Members of our family law team are accredited by the Law Society of Scotland.

Understanding coercive behaviour & identifying signs of coercive control

Types of coercive behaviour can be very wide ranging and often stray into other types of behaviour which are also regarded as Domestic Abuse.

Examples of coercive and controlling behaviours may include the following:

  • All finances are held in your partner’s name which is a form of controlling behaviour.
  • Your name is used for legal documents or purposes without your permission.
  • You have a strict budget that’s often unrealistic to manage day to day spending.
  • You are not able to work or have income, which is abusive behaviour aimed at maintaining power through financial threats.
  • Your partner exhibits financial control by taking money from your bank accounts without asking.
  • Your partner threatens to withhold money from you.
  • Your partner devalues or dismisses your beliefs which is a sign of psychological and emotional abuse.
  • Your partner withholds praise or appreciation, undermining your self-esteem.
  • Your partner is excessively jealous.
  • You are accused of constant infidelity or having relationships/feelings for other people.
  • Your partner harms themselves or threatens to harm themselves to get you to cooperate with what it is they hope to achieve.
  • Your partner makes you feel as though you deserved to be punished as a form of abusive behaviour.
  • Your partner does not listen or responds to you when you talk.
  • Your partner lies to you.
  • Your partner denies the abuse and says you are the cause.
  • Your phone calls, text messages, emails or social media accounts are constantly monitored or blocked.
  • Your partner demands you prove where you’re at whenever you’re apart.
  • Your partner tells you where you can and cannot go.
  • Your partner follows you.
  • You have no privacy.
  • Your partner accompanies you everywhere you go.
  • You can’t wear certain clothes, do your hair a certain way, or wear makeup, or else your partner guilts or punishes you.
  • You’re not allowed to see family and friends.
  • Your family members and friends are lied to about you.
  • You are shut in the house.
  • Your partner stops you from attending social events.
  • Your partner withholds information from you.
  • Your partner does not help with tasks or caring for the children, which may be due to gender ideologies.
  • Your partner says it will never happen again.
  • Your partner is publicly a different person.
  • Your partner disconnects the Wi-Fi so you can’t contact anyone and vice versa.
  • You have no choice in decisions.
  • Concern that you are always doing something wrong and living in constant fear due to a partner’s unpredictable nature. You avoid saying things because you do not want to upset the other party.

The spectrum of abuse

All relationships can fall into a spectrum of healthy behaviours and relationships. Unhealthy or abusive relationships are those whereby the types of behaviours outlined above exist and persist over a period of time. It is important for those experiencing unhealthy or abusive relationships to try and identify the warning signs early on in a relationship wherever possible. For many victims those types of behaviours can become the day-to-day norms in their life. Therefore, where applicable, listening to friends and family who may have observed such controlling and manipulative behaviours can be an important step in identifying where a relationship may be becoming unhealthy or abusive. In situations where unhealthy behaviours or abusive behaviours persist, this can often result in an escalation of those behaviours over time. Abuse, including physical violence and verbal abuse, can become more severe and the impact on the victim more harmful over time.

The impact of coercive control

Recognising and understanding domestic abuse and coercive control is extremely important to protect those individuals in an intimate or family relationship who may be vulnerable. The impact of coercive control can create extremely traumatic life experiences for victims. This can sadly have lasting effects, impacting on their quality of life, self-confidence and future decision making.

If you, your family member or a friend is experiencing coercive behaviour, consider contacting one of our coercive control solicitors.

Emotional and psychological effects on victims

Coercive control can have long lasting impacts on victims in terms of their emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing. Coercive control is intended to break down a victim’s independence and personal decision making, so that their lives become controlled by the abuser. Domestic abuse is a form of trauma. The more sever the abuse, the greater the detrimental impact can be on the victim. The harm can have lifelong impacts on a victim physically, mentally and their own sexual health.

It is difficult to fully measure the impact of domestic abuse as it is subjective, but examples of the impacts that can be caused by domestic abuse may include any of the following:

  • Injury or disability
  • Sleeping disorders
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Mental health issues
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Drug abuse
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Sleeping disorders
  • Pregnancy complications
  • Eating disorders
  • Loss of employment
  • Homelessness
  • Breakdowns in Isolation from friends and family

Long-term consequences for family members and children

Sadly, the impact of coercive control as a form of domestic violence can have far reaching impacts not only on the victim, but also on those around them. The more severe and prolonged the abuse is, often the more harmful and long lasting the impacts can be. The harmful consequences often have knock on effects into various areas of the victims lives, and their children.

  • Victims can become isolated from their friends and family members
  • Victims can become unable to function in their day to day normally, coping with everyday life tasks or their employment.
  • Following an abusive relationship a child can become isolated from the other parent
  • Children can also be drawn into becoming victims of domestic abuse and coercive controlling behaviour
  • The abuser can end up in prison
  • Children who have been exposed to domestic abuse are likely to be exposed to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
  • Children may suffer their own mental health issues, such as bed wetting, excessive crying, separation anxiety and distress.
  • Longer term, children who are exposed to domestic abuse may experience Isolation, low attendance at school or extra curricular activities.

Domestic abuse – family law solicitors and civil orders

By working with a family lawyer, you will be advised of all your legal options and provided with solutions tailored to your situation. You can make an informed decision for your own and your family’s protection without necessarily involving the Police or the Criminal Court Process. At Harper Macleod we are sensitive to emotional trauma and are there to provide a support system throughout the legal process. Our role is to guide you and keep you informed every step of the way. We will discuss with you what court orders may be available to assist you. What orders you seek will depend on a variety of factors such as if you are married, civil partners or a cohabitating couple. However, not all orders are catered towards those you have intimate relationships with. There are also remedies in place for protection against any individual who is behaving abusively towards you. We can advise you on this, and on what course of action is the best possible protection in the quickest and most affordable way for you.

The different types of civil court orders that a solicitor can advise you on may include;

Interdicts and Interim Interdict

Interdicts are a Civil Court order which is the Scottish equivalent to an injunction. Within a family law context, an Interdict is intended to prohibit the conduct of one party to prevent them acting in a specified manner towards the victim or a child of the family. The terms of the Interdict can be quite bespoke where necessary.

Generally, a non-molestation interdict is what will be sought from the Court. This is a general interdict would intended to prohibit a person from abusing the victim verbally, by making violent threats, by putting them into a state of fear and alarm or distress and by using physical or emotional abuse towards them. Such interdicts are usually requested from the Court at the very outset of a Court action dealing with domestic abuse and would be granted on an ‘interim’ basis. An Interim Interdict is essentially a temporary order granted by the Court during the course of the Court procedure and before final Orders are made. An Interim Interdict can be granted by the Court prior to the Defender being notified of the case having been raised.

An interdict can also specify that a person is to be prevented from entering a specific location or a place of residence, place of work or any school attended by a child of the family. An interdict can prevent unlawful entry to a home. For example, it can be used to prevent a person returning to the home who does not have the right to occupy it. However, an interdict cannot deprive someone of their right to occupy property. For this, an Exclusion Order must be sought which is discussed below. The scope of an Interdict and the extent of behaviours that can be prohibited are a matter of discretion for the Court.

Whether a Court will grant interim interdict will be determined on a two-stage test (1) that there is on the face of it a foundation and reasonable prospect of success (prima facie case), and (2) the balance of convenience favours the Interim Interdict being granted, as the inconvenience it may cause to the defender is outweighed by the potential impact to the victim. If the interdicted person is proven to have breached the terms of the interdict then they may be found to be in contempt of court and subject to a fine or imprisonment.

Power of arrest

This is an ancillary order that can be attached to an interdict. An abused person applying for, or who has obtained an interdict for the purpose of protection from abuse, may apply to the court for a Power of Arrest to be attached to that. In other words, a Power of Arrest is an additional layer of protection which the court can attach to an Interdict. A Power of Arrest can only be attached where it is necessary to protect the applicant from the risk of abuse. Once a Power of Arrest is in place, if an allegation has been made that an individual has breached the terms of their interdict, the Police are able to immediately arrest the perpetrator without the need for a warrant if they have reasonable cause to suspect they have breached the order and consider that there would be a risk of physical violence. The individual would be detained, and the matter would be dealt with before the Criminal Court process. If the Court finds that an individual has breached an interdict, they will be guilty of a criminal offence.

Domestic abuse interdict

An interdict may be determined by the court to be a ‘Domestic Abuse Interdict’ if the court is satisfied that it is for the protection of the applicant against their abuser. A court will determine an interdict as a domestic abuse interdict only if the interdict is intended to protect the applicant from their spouse, civil partner, cohabitating equivalent of the applicant or a person in an intimate relationship with the applicant. This includes relationships between boyfriends and girlfriends, including same sex relationships, although the relationship does not need to be sexual. Family relationships and other types of relationships such as those between friends or work colleagues for example are not intended to be covered here. Essentially, if your interdict is declared as being a domestic abuse interdict and the court grants a Power of Arrest, or you already have a Power of Arrest that’s still in force, a breach of the domestic abuse interdict will be regarded as a criminal offence.

Exclusion orders

An Exclusion Order is a Court Order which suspends a partner’s occupancy rights to be able to enter or occupy a matrimonial or family home. Occupancy rights are a legal right and entitlement of a person to be able to enter and occupy a heritable property. In a family law context, occupancy rights include a legal right to enter and occupy along with any child of the family, the matrimonial or family home. Occupancy rights can primarily be obtained automatically by being named on the title deeds for a property which is owned, or by being a tenant if it is a rental property.

You can also obtain occupancy rights through marriage/civil partnership. If you are married/civil partnered, you will acquire occupancy rights automatically on marrying/entering into a civil partnership with the owner/tenant of a property, where the couple are living in the property as a family home. Where this occurs, spouses and civil partners automatically have occupancy rights even if they are not a title holder or a named tenant to the property. This is known as being a ‘non-entitled spouse or civil partner’. Occupancy rights give the non-entitled spouse the same right to live in the matrimonial home as if they were the owner/tenant.

If you are a cohabitating couple, unlike married couples, you do not have automatic occupancy rights. If you are not on the title, then you do not have occupancy rights unless you apply to the Court to obtain an Order with to obtain them for a temporary period. This is known as applying for an Award of Occupancy Rights. If the court grants the applicant occupancy rights, they are generally only granted for a period of up to a maximum of six months, although a further application can be made for an additional extension by application to the Court.

An Exclusion Order suspends the occupancy rights of a person who holds occupancy rights and prevents them from returning to the family home. This is despite the fact that the abuser has occupancy and a legal right to live in the home.

It is important to note that an abuser who holds occupancy rights as a joint owner or as a non-entitled spouse can only be lawfully excluded from a matrimonial home by an Exclusion Order. It is not possible to Interdict an abuser from a property which they have occupancy rights to.

An Exclusion Order is granted if the court considers it necessary for the protection of the applicant, or any child of the family, from any conduct, of the non-applicant ‘which is or would be injurious to the physical or mental health of the applicant or child’. The court will also look the nature and the extent of the alleged conduct and needs to be satisfied that the conduct is likely to be repeated if the parties continue to live together. An Exclusion Order must also be necessary to protect the applicant and any children of the family and be reasonable in the circumstances. Factors such as the parties’ financial resources, the needs of the children, whether the property is used for work or business and the availability of other suitable accommodation can all be taken into account as part of the decision-making process. The test for obtaining an Exclusion Order is a high.

Exclusion Orders are not usually standalone orders. For an Exclusion Order to be effective, it must be sought and combined with other protective orders including a warrant for summary ejection and an interdict preventing the abuser from entering or remaining in the property. A warrant of ejection is an order that instructs the removal of a person from a property. Therefore, the Exclusion Order suspends their occupancy rights, and the warrant of summary ejection grants the power to the Police to forcibly remove the abuse from the home if necessary and a Power of Arrest order allows the Police to automatically rest the alleged abuser if there is concern the terms of the order may have been breached.

Non-harassment orders

A Non-Harassment Order is designed to protect a victim from a course of conduct which amounts to harassment and causes the victim emotional abuse through fear, alarm and distress. ‘Conduct’ is the actions taken by a person to cause another to feel alarmed or distressed. Examples of harassing behaviours includes sending text messages, repeated phone calls, stalking, unwanted visits, posting on social media about them, cyber bullying, blackmailing and spreading rumours to name a few. Conduct like these examples amounts to a course of conduct if it occurs on at least two occasions (if it is not part of a domestic violence situation – if it is, then the violent behaviour needs only to happen once.). Whether the court decides to grant a Non-Harassment Order is determined on the balance of probabilities. In other words, if it is more likely than not to be appropriate to protect the victim from further harassment. These Orders are available to all individuals, not just separated couples. Scots Law provides that every individual has the right to be free of harassment. A party must not pursue a course of conduct with amounts to harassment of another person and is intended to amount to harassment of that person. The test for this is whether it would appear to ta reasonable person that tit is intend harassment. If a party breaches a Non-Harassment Order, they will be guilty of a criminal offence and can be arrested without a warrant. This can result in them being fines or imprisoned. A victim of a breach of a Non-Harassment Order can also apply to the court for a civil based claim and be entitled to an award of damages.

Legal aspects and the criminal justice system

Tackling domestic abuse is an organisational priority for both Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. The Police will treat all incidents of domestic abuse as high priority, with focus being on the safety and well-being of the victims, other family members and any other person present. Regardless of whether the victim makes a complaint themselves, the Police will take appropriate action, including arrest the suspect where there is reasonable cause to suspect a crime has been committed. Where there is sufficient evidence, the police will charge the suspect and submit a report to the Procurator Fiscal to consider for prosecuting through the Criminal Courts.

All cases involving an element of domestic abuse will be reported to the Procurator Fiscal for consideration on whether to prosecute. A decision to prosecute will involve there being sufficient corroborative evidence.

For victims, a Police Officer trained in Domestic Abuse will be appointed to support them, update them on the criminal process and ensure appropriate support services for safety are in place. Consideration will also be considered to any necessary safeguarding for children who may have been affected by the domestic violence. Where children have been exposed to domestic abuse, this can result in a referral being made to the Scottish Children’s Reporters Administration (SCRA) for review on whether any Child Protection measures may be necessary to protect the welfare of the child. If children have been witnesses, they too may need to be interviewed by trained police officers.

For victims and children, the Police will also have regard to any special measures available to support the victims or children through the criminal justice system.

Counter allegations of domestic abuse may also be made. The police will investigate counter allegations of abuse. The police then have the task of identifying and determining who the principal perpetrator is for reporting to the Procurator Fiscal. The police will consider the nature and circumstances of the incident, whether one party may have acted in self-defence or whether there are historical incidents which are relevant.

Seeking help and support

Domestic abuse can happen to anyone, and often victims are completely unaware it is even occurring. Therefore it is important for not only victims, but the public generally to be aware of signs of domestic abuse and understand where and how to get help. If domestic abuse is occurring, it is important to speak out about that to friends, family or professional support services.

Below are key considerations and guidance for both victims and third parties to take into consideration when domestic abuse or coercive control may be occurring:

  • If there is immediate danger to life, health and welfare of a victim or child, report it to the Police
  • It is important to understand the importance of empathy and respect for a victim’s personal wishes.
  • Encouraging and supporting a victim to take steps to get the professional help from domestic abuse agency, the police and a family law solicitor is key.
  • Encourage the victim to speak to a Specialist Family Law Solicitor
  • Ensure the victim takes a mobile telephone with them when they go out
  • Victims should have their keys ready for when you reach your front door
  • Victims may wish to fit a home alarm system or carry a personal attack alarm
  • Victims should change your online passwords and do not share private information
  • Victims should set a pin or password on their mobile devices
  • Victims should turn off GPS and locating tagging on your mobile devices
  • If Victims think they are being followed, head to a public place or contact the Police
  • Assist victims building a support network via Friends, family, legal and professional community involvement
  • Developing an exit strategy and safety plan for the victim to escape the abusive behaviour

Domestic Abuse Disclosure Scheme

In Scotland, Police Scotland provide a Disclosure Scheme for members of the public to ask the Police if someone has a history of domestic abuse and if so, to disclose that information to them.

The form can be completed by a person who wants to find out information about their own partner, or by a third party asking about someone else’s partner if they think that person’s partner should be told if their partner has a history of domestic abuse. For example, it could also be a friend or family member applying to request that information is shared with the person who could be in a relationship with a person who has a history of domestic abuse.

The purpose of this scheme is to allow people to make informed decisions about whether they wish to be in a relationship with someone who may have a history of domestic abuse. Police Scotland state on their website that it can take 45 days to process an application.

Information and the online form to make a request can be found by clicking here.

Helpful resources


Coercive control is a complex form of domestic abuse, which requires careful understanding and experience to advise effectively. It is essential to understand the impact of trauma and the intricacies of how the alleged abusive conduct or behaviour may impact on the victim and their decision making and wellbeing.

Speaking to a family law specialist allows independent and impartial advice to be obtained on all of the options that may be available to address any allegations of coercive control and domestic abuse that may have been raised, both from a criminal and civil law perspective. There are a wide variety of civil law remedies available to victims who require protection, but who perhaps do not wish to involve the Police or become involved in the criminal justice process.

Speaking out about coercive control and domestic abuse can be one of the hardest steps to take and a daunting process. Finding the right solicitor for you can also be challenging. At Harper Macleod we have a team of Solicitors who Specialise in Family Law and frequently deal with cases of domestic abuse. Our Family Law Team is made up of several solicitors who are Accredited Specialists with the Law Society of Scotland.

For an initial chat with a member of our family team to see how we can assist you, please submit a call back form.


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Call us for free on 0141 227 9545 or complete our online form below for legal advice or to arrange a call back.

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Get in touch


Get in touch

Call us for free on 0141 227 9545 or complete our online form below for legal advice or to arrange a call back.