• Coercive Control

    There seems to be no let-up in the reports coming in from around the world of shocking violence against women. Sadly, the tragic events in Dunedin seem to add a further New Zealand instance to that shameful catalogue.

    Most cases of domestic violence involve physical or sexual abuse; but increasingly, that abuse is preceded or accompanied by psychological abuse as well.

    New Zealand was among the more enlightened countries when Parliament in 1995 added psychological abuse, as well as the more familiar physical and sexual abuse, to the definition of domestic violence. As the current advertising campaign against domestic violence “It’s Not Okay” makes clear, psychological abuse can be just as damaging as other forms of domestic violence.

    Sadly, though, Parliament’s 1995 intentions have come almost to nought. Counsellors and psychologists, lawyers and judges, have almost uniformly chosen to remain ignorant of, and therefore to ignore, allegations of psychological abuse. One example; whereas the Family Court and its officers would never, in a case of physical or sexual abuse, send the parties to mediation, that is often their first resort in cases which might involve psychological abuse.

    The current orthodoxy is that the parties to a relationship break-down should be encouraged to behave as much as possible like a “normal” family, especially where children are involved. Shared parenting is the order of the day. But this is clearly not possible in cases of physical and sexual abuse – and it is no more appropriate in cases where the reason for the break-down was the psychological abuse of one party by the other.

    The courts do of course have great difficulty with psychological abuse (or “coercive control” as it is now often called in the literature). It is hard to establish good evidence, because psychological abuse “does not leave bruises”. And, unlike physical or sexual abuse, it does not occur in the form of single and recognisably traumatic events but usually comprises, over many years, an endless succession of small incidents, usually constituting a deliberate and cumulative pattern of behaviour which can do great damage to the victim and other family members.

    There is a growing body of research about what constitutes psychological abuse, much of it in the US and some of the best produced by psychologists who actually work with the perpetrators of the abuse. The essence of the abuse is the determination of the abuser to control, bully and dominate the victim – and in the end to destroy her identity as a person in her own right.

    Typically, an abuser will seek to isolate the victim. He will forbid her to leave the house except for purposes he approves. He will antagonise her friends so that they no longer visit. He will limit her outside interests and insist that her role is in the home.

    He will attack her self-esteem by constantly telling her she is “useless” or “brainless”. He will denigrate her in front of the children. He will treat her as a drudge or minion. He will make unreasonable and constantly changing demands. He will keep her short of money (while spending freely himself); he may insist on being shown detailed receipts for every item of expenditure, including food and other groceries. He will withhold love and affection, except when sex is required.

    The victim will begin to feel worthless, and will believe what she is constantly told – that “it is all your fault”. She will feel powerless to change the situation, doubting her own ability to decide and act for herself, and convinced that her partner cannot be challenged.

    None of this need involve physical violence, though it might do. The perpetrator is usually able to present a reasonable exterior to his own friends in the outside world. He reserves his abuse for the domestic context. The abuse does not stop with the victim, but will usually affect the children of the relationship as well.

    The research shows that if the victim is finally able to summon up the courage to break away, the abuser will often use the post-separation process – exploiting issues like financial support or contact with the children – as an opportunity to try to re-assert control and to punish the victim for seeking to escape. The use of the courts over a prolonged period is a typical weapon to this end. The abuse does not end when the relationship ends.

    The Family Court’s preference for sending cases to mediation is meat and drink to the abuser. It is a chance to dominate the victim all over again, to re-create in her that sense that she cannot stand up for herself and that her abuser will always win. The legal process that should be protecting her from the abuser she has escaped from seems intent on thrusting her (and often her children) back into his control.

    The only way that the law can be made to work as intended is if those appointed as mediators in such cases are properly trained to recognise and act on psychological abuse. Without it, the law is a dead letter, and we might well ask – why did the legislators bother?

    Bryan Gould

    16 January 2014.

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 24 January.

  • John Key and the Law

    There are many reasons for concern about the GCSB Bill that has just passed into law, but one we might not have expected is the extent to which the Prime Minister seems unaware of its true implications.

    It must surely have come as a shock, even to his supporters, that John Key seems not to understand some of the basic principles of democratic government. In particular, he seemed to see no distinction between his own personal assurances and the law of the land.

    The great principle of English common law, both foreshadowing and endorsed by the Glorious Revolution, is that no man “be ye ever so high” is above the law. The great Chief Justice Edmund Coke would have made short shrift of any pretension that a mere politician could decide what was and was not the law by his mere say-so.

    Yet that is what our Prime Minister apparently presumes to do. In assurances given in a television interview, he asked citizens to accept his word as to his intentions concerning the new power to intercept our communications that the security service he heads was about to have conferred upon it. He seemed to think that, merely because he had said it, it was equivalent to a legal obligation and could be relied upon in a court of law.

    He was under a similar misapprehension when he proclaimed that he would speak in the Bill’s Third Reading debate so that future courts would know what the Act meant and, therefore, what the law was. He did not seem to realise that it is Parliaments, not Prime Ministers, that make law and that it is courts that interpret it.

    But surely, it may be objected, we can trust John Key? If he says he will use the new power responsibly, why should we not believe him?

    Let us leave to one side the obvious point that, however virtuous John Key may be, he will not be here forever, and we have no idea what view his successors may take, or what use they might make, of the wide powers he has claimed for himself.

    The real point, though, is that liberty can be eroded if power is placed in just one set of hands, however well-intentioned, and is not subject to proper checks and safeguards – and that almost always means legal safeguards. It needs only a temptation to treat as identical or equivalent the interests of a particular party or government on the one hand and those of the whole country on the other to raise unacceptable risks that basic freedoms might be threatened.

    Some of the most thorough-going despots in history have no doubt believed that the fortunes of their country and their own are indistinguishable. I have no doubt that Robert Mugabe, for example, genuinely believes that Zimbabwe would be a shambles without him.

    Our own Prime Minister’s reliability in this regard is surely called into question by his easy assumption that his own (personal, political and partisan) interests are the only guide necessary to ensure that the huge diversity of interests of his fellow citizens is properly served.

    The rationale offered by Peter Dunne for his own support for the Bill offers no more comfort. If the Prime Minister were to misuse these powers, Peter Dunne assures us, John Key would be “punished by public opinion”. Leaving aside the question of how the public would ever know, what makes Peter Dunne think that John Key is deterred by public opinion? If public opinion counted for anything, we wouldn’t have the Bill in the first place – and nor, for that matter, would we have Peter Dunne.

    Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the whole episode – going beyond even the very real fears about our progress down a slippery slope to a surveillance state – is what it tells us about the Prime Minister’s increasingly slapdash way of doing business.

    He seems more and more to believe that he can get away with flying by the seat of his pants – that he is able to resolve any problem with a quick fix or an easy promise. His government seems increasingly to be a law unto itself, answerable to no one but the Prime Minister himself, and he looks to be more and more prone to taking his eye off the ball.

    The literally overnight timeframe of the foreign exchange dealer may have been ideal for the purpose of making a quick personal fortune on the foreign exchange markets, but we surely need a longer and more considered timeframe and a more thoughtful approach from the country’s leader.

    The GCSB saga has been a shambles from beginning to end. Perhaps the only consolation is that it begins to offer us some explanation as to why so much else suddenly seems to be going wrong as well.

    Bryan Gould

    21 August 2013

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 23 August 2013