Coercive control in relationships is a significant issue but criminalisation may not be the solution, family violence lawyers have told a group of NSW politicians.
Advocates, police and lawyers were among the witnesses to give evidence to the first hearing of the public inquiry of NSW parliament's Joint Select Committee on Coercive Control.
The inquiry is contemplating a new domestic violence offence to criminalise coercive control, which is broadly defined as a pattern of behaviours used to intimidate, humiliate, surveil, and control another person.
"The horrific rate of domestic violence murders in Australia remains stubbornly consistent and coercive and controlling behaviour is a common precursor to intimate partner homicide," NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman said when he announced the inquiry in October.
"Creating a coercive control offence would be a complex though potentially very worthwhile reform that could help prevent these homicides."
Family lawyer Margie O'Neill, who practices in Sydney's northern beaches, said on Monday she had seen domestic abuse "at an increasingly alarming rate" particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Men were not allowing women to have their own passwords on the internet, changing their passwords, and sending sexual emails and text messages to male contacts in their partners' phones and then denying they sent them, Ms O'Neill said.
"We weren't seeing this once, it was just over and over," she said.
Another family lawyer, Lyndal Gowland, went on Christmas Eve to a police station with a client experiencing coercive control who she was concerned might be killed.
The male police officer responded to the complaints by saying many women make such accusations to gain an advantage in the Family Court, she said.
"There are posters all over the police station saying 'we take domestic violence seriously'. ... It blew my mind that we're still facing that," Ms Gowland said.
Ms O'Neill and Ms Gowland both support criminalising coercive control, so that police and judges take the behaviours seriously.
But others questioned whether amending the criminal law is the right solution.
"If education is the goal of the offence, then please, I beg you, provide that education," CEO of South-West Sydney Legal Centre Yvette Vignando said.
The committee needs to focus on what will increase the safety of women and children and gather evidence from experts about that, Ms Vignando argued.
Other interventions, like improving housing and accommodation, would better keep women safe and should be a higher priority, she said.
She said there were already laws which could be used to protect women from coercive control and the fact they aren't being used points to a cultural problem.
Cultural change will only come with criminalisation, Hannah Robinson of the Western NSW Community Legal Centre told the committee.
Without a criminal offence, "non-physical abuse is always going to be viewed as lesser," she said.
Other witnesses warned of the difficulty in defining coercive control, unintended consequences, and the need to consult survivors from diverse backgrounds, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.
The committee will report back by June 2021. Its upcoming hearings will include a visit to regional NSW, chair Natalie Ward said on Monday.