Ex-Family Court chief wants coercive control laws to criminalise 'intimate terrorism'
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Ex-Family Court chief wants coercive control laws to criminalise 'intimate terrorism'

Former Chief Justice of the Family Court Alistair Nicholson has called for coercive control or "intimate terrorism" to be criminalised in all Australian states, in a bid to help curb domestic violence.

His comments, made on the eve of White Ribbon Day, add weight to campaigns being waged to make coercive control, or non-physical domestic violence, a specific offence in mainland Australian states, as it is in Tasmania and some overseas jurisdictions.

Former Chief Justice of the Family Court Alistair Nicholson's comments support those of domestic violence experts, and several victim support groups, which have been lobbying for change.

Former Chief Justice of the Family Court Alistair Nicholson's comments support those of domestic violence experts, and several victim support groups, which have been lobbying for change.Credit:Penny Bradfield

Mr Nicholson, who served as chief justice from 1988 until his retirement in 2004, said police also needed to be taught to look for covert emotional and non-physical violence when investigating cases of domestic abuse.

His experience assessing hundreds of cases showed him that coercive control often fed into physical violence, as well as other crimes like destroying property, and that criminalisation would allow police to look beyond a single event to a pattern of behaviour.

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“Certainly I think the pattern of shutting someone off from their friends and relatives is a very common feature of that sort of behaviour. And I think it's one of the more frightening ones because (victims) become too scared to seek help,’’ he said.

“Police need a lot more training in the dangers of that. They’re inclined to dismiss it unless something overt has happened; unless there’s been some incident to cause the problem.’’

His comments support those of domestic violence experts, such as author Jess Hill, Deakin University academic Paul McGorrery and several victim support groups, who have been lobbying for change.

They come ahead of a story to be published in this Saturday's Good Weekend which explores the coercive control Brisbane man Rowan Baxter waged against his 31-year-old wife Hannah Clarke before setting her and their three young children alight in February, killing them all.

Clarke’s parents, Lloyd and Sue Clarke, said last night that they too would like movement on coercive control laws “sooner rather than later’’. Their daughter had never heard of "coercive control" before a police officer explained it to her just prior to her murder, and they needed to google the term themselves when it kept popping up in headlines after Hannah's death.

Hannah Clarke and Rowan Baxter appeared to have a fairy tale family life. “I would never have picked it,” says one acquaintance of Baxter’s private abuse of Hannah.

Hannah Clarke and Rowan Baxter appeared to have a fairy tale family life. “I would never have picked it,” says one acquaintance of Baxter’s private abuse of Hannah.Credit:Courtesy of Hannah Clarke’s family and friends

Mr Nicholson said Australia lacked a national approach to problems like domestic abuse and that criminalising coercive control would have to be done on a state by state basis. While some worry that it would be too difficult to prosecute, he disagreed.

“These people usually give themselves away pretty clearly,’’ he said.

He recalled one case in which the male perpetrator of abuse denied all accusations. “Once he got into the witness box there was no doubt that was what he was doing. He still maintained the denials but they were quite unbelievable. These are usually pretty rigid characters, these sort of people, and it does emerge pretty clearly when they are questioned.’’

Since leaving the judiciary, Mr Nicholson said he'd involved a senior police officer personally in a bid to protect a woman and her family who had been brought to his attention.

“They went into a protective scheme," he said. "They went to school with different names and so on. You have to go to those levels in those cases to protect the person.’’

"The murders that sparked a movement to criminalise "intimate terrorism" is in Good Weekend, out Saturday. To read Good Weekend online, visit it at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.

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