Police Responses to Coercive Control

It was only in 2015 that coercive control was made a criminal offence in the UK.

Coercive control is a form of domestic abuse, which does not necessarily involve physical abuse, but results in a victim being isolated from their support network and reliant on someone who inflicts acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation.

The term was developed by Professor Evan Stark, who compares it to being taken hostage: “The victim becomes captive in an unreal world created by the abuser, entrapped in a world of confusion, contradiction and fear.”

Four years since it was first made a legal offence under the Serious Crime Act, new cases of coercive control are being placed under the spotlight every week in the media.

One high-profile example is the case of Sally Challen. In 2010, Sally killed her husband Richard and was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

In March 2018, she won leave to appeal against her conviction, on the grounds that she had suffered under “coercive and controlling behaviour” from her husband. In February this year her conviction was was quashed and a retrial ordered after a panel of three judges ruled it was unsafe in light of new evidence that was not available at the time of her trial.

N8 researchers have recently developed a new learning tool to help equip police officers with the skills to provide an improved service for victims of the complex law.

Lancaster University, in partnership with Merseyside Police and Women’s Aid, has developed the ‘coercive control learning tool’ which provides training and guidance to help officers at all ranks to understand, respond to, investigate and evidence coercive control. It can be used as a face-to-face training aid or adapted as an online resource.

It is currently being piloted by Merseyside Police and will also be made available to other interested police forces and appropriate agencies.

The project also involved analysing Merseyside Police domestic abuse data from January 2016-June 2017.

The research, funded by the N8 Policing Research Partnership (PRP), was led by Dr Charlotte Barlow (Lancaster University), Professor Sandra Walklate (University of Liverpool) and Dr Kelly Johnson (Lancaster University). It reveals that of the 19,000 domestic-abuse related crimes recorded by Merseyside Police over the previous 18 months, only 156 were listed under new coercive control offences.


Charlotte Barlow of Lancaster University Law School said: “The research paints a complex picture of how the new coercive control offence is playing out in police practice.

“The rarity of this outcome is connected to officers struggling to demonstrate experiences of sustained coercive control within victims’ statements. Other factors include victim’s retracting their statements, for example.

“We also noted that officers investigating coercive control cases often did not capitalise on other available sources of evidence, such as other third-party witness statements, and physical or digital evidence.

“A key recommendation as a result of these findings is to further equip police forces with the skills to identify, respond to and investigate coercive control. This will require significant investment at both a force and national level.”

The research also shows:

  • 95% of victims were female and perpetrators were much more likely to be male
  • Victims rarely contacted the police specifically to report coercive control. The crime of coercive control often became apparent as a result of other offences (such as assault or criminal damage) being reported to the police.
  • Compared to other cases of domestic abuse-related crimes, emergency and other calls for help with coercive control cases were given a lower priority grading by call handler.
  • Coercive control cases were also less likely to lead to an arrest or be solved in comparison to other forms of domestic abuse (such as ABH).


Findings also suggested that there were possible missed opportunities for using the coercive control offence.

When analysing a random sample of other domestic abuse crimes, 87% of the sample analysed could have been recorded as a crime of coercive control because of the types of behaviour present, such as patterned abuse and control.

A significant number of coercive control cases faced no further action because of ‘evidential issues’.

Download the full findings report here