WORDS: Corrine Barraclough PHOTOGRAPHY Supplied

After the horrific murders of Hannah Clarke and her three children in Queensland, coercive control has become a term commonly used in relation to domestic violence. In this special report, ORM looks at what the term means, how it can be legally enforced, and what impact new legal reforms may have on relationship breakdowns.

Since Hannah Clarke’s tragic, horrendous death, her parents Sue and Lloyd Clarke have been campaigning tirelessly for legal reform. Hannah Clarke and her three children Trey, 3, Aaliyah, 6, and Laianah, 4, were all murdered by her estranged partner in 2020. It was a horrific crime that shocked our state and our nation.

For years, Hannah Clarke tried to tread carefully around her controlling husband who treated his family as possessions. In a chilling note found on his mobile phone after his death, he revealed his reasoning for killing Hannah, the Queensland Coroner’s Court in Brisbane was told. “I’m finishing your game. I don’t want to play it anymore. You can’t f**k with someone’s life like this and expect them to take it.”

The court was told that Hannah Clarke was scared of what her ex might do if she left him. Once they separated in 2019, she feared for her life and the lives of her children.

Her mum, Sue said, “She was always walking on eggshells.”

A coronial inquest into their deaths found that while police officers acted appropriately overall, there had been missed opportunities for intervention before their murders.

And it is these missed opportunities that new legal reform in Queensland is seeking to address.

Specifically, the coroner found a “failure to recognise the risk of intimate partner homicide which results from separation in a coercive controlling relationship”.

Before the death of Hannah Clarke and her three gorgeous children, coercive control was not a term that was on the radar of the Queensland public.

According to Relationships Victoria, coercive control is a pattern of controlling and manipulating behaviours in a relationship.

There are said to be 12 signs of coercive control:

1) Isolating a person from their support system: an abusive partner may seek to limit your contact with friends and family.

2) Denying you freedom and autonomy: this could be anything from taking your phone, changing passwords or insisting they pick you up rather than you choosing to take public transport.

3) Monitoring: this is specifically talking about keeping a track of your movements throughout the day, constantly checking in for instance.

4) Gaslighting: by insisting that they are always right, you start to doubt your own truth and your own sanity.

5) Criticism: name-calling or severe criticism would fall under this.

6) Controlling finances: this could range from putting you on a strict budget that barely covers essentials to limiting your access to bank accounts.

7) Domestic pressure: if your partner pushes you into taking care of domestic duties like cooking and cleaning, this could apply.

8) Weaponising children: turning children against the other parent.

9) Controlling your health and body: maybe a partner monitors how much you eat, sleep and exercise, or control which doctor you go to seek treatment from.

10) Jealousy: a partner exerting coercive control may voice dislike of you spending time or talking about family or friends (or both).

11) Sexual: making demands about when you have sex, or what kind of activities you perform.

12) Threatening children or pets: it is said that a controlling partner may make threats against others that you love in a way or gaining control back.

The ‘Hear Her Voice’ report followed six years after the report completed by the Honourable Dame Quentin Bryce AD CVO, ‘Not Now, Not Ever, which led to widespread reforms to domestic and family violence in Queensland.

The ‘Hear Her Voice’ report was produced by The Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce.

That Taskforce received over 700 submissions, met with over 125 key stakeholders and ran forums across the state to speak to women with lived experience.

Its first report was submitted to the Attorney General outlining how best to legislate against coercive control. That first report made 89 recommendations to the Queensland Government about “essential reforms required to the domestic violence service and justice systems, as well as a four-phase plan that includes a comprehensive suite of legislative reforms”.

Chair of the Taskforce, the Honourable Margaret McMurdo, said that system-wide reform was required.

The ‘Hear Her Voice’ report shared many heartbreaking accounts from women about the fear, distress and devastating impact of a coercively controlling partner.

“It is our responsibility to ensure that the government, media and wider Queensland community hear what these brave women have told us,” McMurdo said.

“Victims of domestic violence seeking help from the police to keep themselves and their children safe should not have to enter a raffle to see if the officer they encounter will respond appropriately,” she continued.

“The Taskforce has great concerns that there are many women experiencing domestic and family violence who won’t even pick up their phone to call the police because they have no confidence in their ability to help. Police are the gateway to the justice system, and we need to do better.”

She continued, “Domestic violence involving coercive control is usually not a one-off incident but a pattern of abusive behaviour that occurs over time. It needs to be viewed in the context of the whole relationship.”

While we were all shocked by the tragic murder of Hannah Clarke and her beautiful children, and most understand why action has been prioritised, few would argue that the law around relationships can ever be straightforward.

Basil Karsas, Criminal Lawyer at Karsas Lawyers based in Southport tells ORM, “The current reforms are really introducing the concept of coercive control, what we understand is that while it’s not currently an offence in and of itself, it’s likely to be in the near future. For now, current reforms have broadened the definition of domestic violence and stalking. That now includes some things that would amount to coercive controlling behaviours. For instance, it includes intimidation, harassment or emotional abuse, so extra things have been added to the law. We’re now talking about seven years in jail as a maximum if parties have been in a relationship.”

Criminal Lawyer – Basil Karsas

So, how have domestic violence orders been changed?

“The law has now been extended to look at abuse over time,” Karsas says. “Someone looking for a domestic violence order may ask the court to look at a pattern of behaviour over time. Now, courts may be asked to consider discreet acts such as psychological abuse are included.”

Why is this happening now?

“What Hannah Clarke’s parents have been pushing for is a societal shift. We’re trying to fix what is essentially a social problem, using the law. Sometimes there is concerning conduct that previously fell short of a criminal offence. That can now be considered by the court when issuing an order. What they’re saying is that whilst there might not have been a relevant act of domestic violence, it’s the cumulative effect of these controlling, coercive behaviours. The hope is, that if a protection order is made, future terrible crimes can be prevented.”

Therefore, it’s about prevention?

“Yes, it’s about prevention. The aim is preventing terrible crimes. The Hannah Clarke case undoubtedly influenced these changes and had a significant impact on government action.”

And will these legal reforms prevent horrendous crimes, like the Hannah Clarke tragedy?

“In terms of whether these changes will achieve the desired results, we will have to see,” Karsas continues. “The laws have only just been passed. Time will tell. The truth is, we actually don’t know right now. It’s an attempted solution to a social problem. They’re trying to legislate about conduct that is seen to have led to homicide, so what they’re saying is that if we can detect some of these behaviours, we can try to prevent the number of domestic violence deaths. Will that work? We just don’t know at this point. We can hope so, but we genuinely don’t know.”

Is it common for specific cases to drive legal reform?

“Well, highly emotive cases, like Hannah Clarke’s, have been a driver for social change, that is true. It’s fairly common that after tragedy, action is sparked.”

While we have the ear of such an esteemed criminal lawyer, ORM is interested to know what the result of these reforms may be.

“The laws have only just come in,” Karsas says. “We will probably see more people charged with stalking. Consider also that courts may now be asked to consider whole relationships. These proceedings will be a lot more involved because there will be a need to examine the whole relationship. Courts will now have to work out what the controlling behaviours were and what the cumulative effect was.”

Before these legal reforms, it was said that forty percent of the QPS workload was domestic violence related. That looks sure to now increase as a percentage as these new requirements come in.

“Yes, we’re going to see a lot of training conducted by the QPS, who are going to have to oversee all of this,” he continued. “The police application will now be required to be more significantly detailed. Every case is different and has its own unique features.”

Every case is indeed different and ORM has been contacted by several Gold Coast men who are currently trying to navigate their personal breakups with the heavy intervention of the legal system.

Breakups are, as we all know, very rarely straightforward.

Billy, 61, from Broadbeach, says, “I’d been in a relationship with my partner for over 20 years. We had two children. Around June 2021 my partner had her first overdose of prescription medication which I didn’t see coming. Over the coming years, this behaviour continued until I was finally accused by her of physically harming her. These overdoses occurred a further seven times over the course of nine years. Police regularly attended the home as she would often do this in the middle of the night while everyone was asleep. In 2018, the police were called by her in an inebriated state following a verbal agreement about children from my previous marriage. Her erratic behaviour continued until 2022.

“I was taken into custody by the police. I didn’t do anything. She protested and said that I hadn’t done anything but the police charged me under the QLD Domestic Violence Act [this is before the more recent legal reforms, which have, as outlined, seen the Act extended].”

An emotional Billy continues to detail how he had to appear in court, having never been in a court room before, without legal representation.

“I had a 15-minute interview with the lawyer before I had to appear in court. I was told I had two choices. One, to plead guilty and accept one of two penalties. Penalty one was to attend a 26-week domestic violence course for men or penalty two was a 5-year protection order for good behaviour. I chose the second option. My ex continued her behaviour for the next seven years.

“I had always been devoted to her and our family so I could not understand what was happening. I had always provided a safe, loving environment for her and the children, and it took a very long time for me to understand that the things that were happening around me were not my fault. The financial implications were also far-reaching. Being self-employed I was unable to carry on running my own business. There is very little support for men in my circumstances.”

Jill Wolff, Special Counsel, Family Law Division Hickey Lawyers tells ORM, “Domestic violence is a multifaceted issue that does not only describe forms of physical violence and in reality, it can take numerous forms that are not currently legislated. Victims have historically been subject to patterns of control and non-physical abuse which alone should be mitigated; however forms of abuse such as this, and coercive control in particular, are also a predictor of severe physical violence. Just like relationships, domestic violence matters are all unique. One of the main drivers behind the push to legislate coercive control is to shift the focus on these intricacies to be proactive, rather than reactive, particularly given the myriad of research which evidences it as a predecessor to physical acts of violence.”

Jill Wolff – Special Counsel

On the new coercive control legislation, she comments, “The rolling out of this legislation across new States, including Queensland, is a step forward in synthesising State-based rules to form a nationally recognised standard for domestic violence so that everyone can have access to the same level of protection. It is also a step towards demystifying the belief that domestic violence equates to physical violence.”

On Billy’s specific situation, Wolff says, “In cases such as Billy’s, the importance of protection for those who need it and allowing for provisions that take into consideration the many unique complexities of each instance of domestic violence is highlighted as a difficult line to tow. A balance between these two such circumstances should be considered in implementation of proposed legislative change so that wide discretion allows for guided interpretation.”