To criminalize or not


Bill C-332 was introduced to Parliament by NDP MP Laurel Collins in the spring of 2023. If passed, it would create a new criminal offence of “controlling or coercive conduct:”

“Everyone commits an offence who repeatedly or continuously engages in controlling or coercive conduct towards a person with whom they are connected that they know or ought to know could, in all the circumstances, reasonably be expected to have a significant impact on that person and that has such an impact on that person.”

Coercive control is a relatively new term but the behaviour is not new. It is an umbrella term to describe a pattern of behaviours perpetrated by one partner against the other. Those behaviours can include emotional/psychological abuse — which itself includes a wide range of actions —  financial abuse and other forms of non-physical abuse.

The term coercive control first made its way into the law in Canada when the Divorce Act was amended a few years ago to include a definition of family violence:

“family violence means any conduct whether or not the conduct constitutes a criminal offence, by a family member towards another family member, that is violent or threatening or that constitutes a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour or that causes that other family member to fear for their own safety or for that of another person. . . “

Following this, interest developed in criminalizing such behaviours, which led to Bill C-332. This Bill has now passed second reading in the House of Commons and has gone to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights for further review. As part of that process, the committee is holding public hearings. Luke’s Place, which does not support the Bill, was invited to present an oral submission as well as a written brief. On February 26, I appeared before the committee as part of a panel. Each of us had five minutes to speak, following by questions from the members of the committee.

You can read the details of our position, including our rationale, in our brief. Here is what I said to the committee:

Good morning. Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you. I hope you’ve had a chance to take a look at our brief, where we elaborate on the points I am about to make.

Luke’s Place works with women in Ontario who have been subjected to intimate partner abuse  — through both the delivery of direct services to those involved with the family law system and engagement in system change work.

While we acknowledge that there are a number of reasons to think criminalizing coercive control could have positive outcomes, we believe the problems with criminalization are greater than the potential benefits.

Over the past 40 years, we’ve seen the many ways in which the criminal law has failed survivors of IPV. Despite many legal interventions and initiatives, IPV — including lethal violence — remains a serious social problem in this country.

While we absolutely need to find ways to validate the experiences of those subjected to coercive control, we do not believe creating a criminal offence is the way to do this.

As with any law reform, criminalizing coercive control will have an impact beyond the criminal law. In particular, the intersections between the criminal and family law systems are so deep that it is not possible to make changes to one without impacting the other.

We are also concerned, based on the negative consequences that have flowed from Canada’s long-standing mandatory charging policies, that a new criminal offence of coercive control could lead to women being inappropriately charged, which would have disastrous impacts, including on women’s family law cases.

Let me make a few remarks about Bill C-332 specifically:

  1. Coercively controlling behaviours are insidious, subtle and often invisible to anyone outside the relationship. What constitutes coercive control is different from one relationship to another. It builds, with one incident leading to another and then another, and only when all of them are examined in totality can the pattern of abuse be recognized – by the survivor herself, as well as by outsiders. For this reason, the Bill needs a clear and inclusive definition of the prohibited behaviours and what constitutes repeated or continuous engagement if it is to be effective. 
  • It also requires a clear and inclusive definition of who it is intended to protect. We encourage you to consider the language used by Ontario’s Domestic Violence Death Review Committee.
  • Given the reality that abuse often continues long after separation – especially for women with children – the two-year time limitation should be removed.

We recommend:

  1. Do not move ahead with Bill C-332 at this time.
  2. Follow the Mass Casualty Commission’s recommendation to establish an expert advisory group to examine whether and how criminal law could better address coercive control. 
  • Provide training, with real accountability measures, for police to ensure they understand the prevalence of IPV, including coercive control.
  • Develop new and mandatory education for Crowns and judges, with accountability measures.
  • Fund access to free independent legal advice for survivors of gender-based violence who are considering accessing the criminal system.
  • Create a Criminal Court Support Worker Program to work in collaboration with existing criminal court victim assistance programs.
  • Fund national stakeholder consultations and discussions about the appropriate use of transformative justice models as a response to GBV in addition to the existing criminal system.

Then, and only then, consider how the criminal law might need adaptation to respond effectively to coercive control, using a collaborative consultation process with all stakeholders.

Once the committee completes its review, the Bill will return to the House of Commons, along with any amendments the committee suggests. Following passage at the third reading stage, it will move to the Senate, where the same process will unfold. We’ll be engaging with Senators and the Senate Justice Committee to continue raising our concerns about criminalization, so stay tuned for further developments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *