Controlling and coercive behaviour: a criminal offence

The criminal offence of controlling and coercive behaviour has been a prevalent topic in recent weeks. Ryan Giggs has been standing trial at Manchester Crown Court, accused of controlling and coercive behaviour towards his former partner. He does not accept that his behaviour has been in any way controlling or coercive.

An allegation of controlling and coercive behaviour is now a criminal offence, which could result in a custodial sentence. This was introduced under Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015. To satisfy the definition, the behaviour must be said to have caused serious alarm or distress. The perpetrator must have repeatedly or continuously engaged in behaviour towards another person that is controlling or coercive. There must also be a personal connection between the two parties at the time the behaviour took place. The behaviour must have had a serious effect on another person, which is explained as either:

  • Causing the victim to fear violence will be used against them on at least two occasions, or;
  • Causing the victim serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on that person’s usual day to day activities

It is also necessary for the defendant to have had, or ought to have had, an awareness of the impact of their behaviour.

What does personally connected mean?

This does not necessarily mean the parties are living together but you would need to demonstrate an intimate personal relationship.

What is controlling and coercive behaviour?

There is no set definition for this but guidance has offered further explanation. Controlling behaviour is said to be a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependant by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour. Coercive behaviour is said to be a continuing act or pattern of acts of assaults, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish or frighten the victim.

Examples of relevant behaviours

  • Isolating a person from their friends and family
  • Repeatedly putting them down and telling them they are worthless
  • Financial abuse including control of finances such as only allowing a person a punitive allowance
  • Enforcing rules and activities which humiliate or degrade the victim

As this is a criminal offence, the standard of proof is for the jury or magistrates to believe that the offence happened 'beyond reasonable doubt'. This is a higher standard of proof than is applied within civil family proceedings, where a judge will just weigh up the evidence on the balance of probabilities.


Anyone faced with a charge of this offence potentially faces a custodial sentence of up to five years. They will receive a criminal record, which could result in them being struck off from their profession or dismissed from their job. Criminal trials are also public and there could be publicity, as Ryan Giggs is currently experiencing. This will no doubt be damaging to his reputation.

It is a welcome change for controlling behaviour to be given this level of recognition. If you have any concerns about the way that you, or somebody you know, are currently being treated, please contact us.

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Gina Nicolas, EJ Coombs Solicitors

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