What is considered ‘psychological abuse’ in Australian law?

It's important to understand how psychological abuse is defined in Australia.
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Domestic violence is a crime, and a serious problem in Australia — one that has become even more commonplace over the past year. In a survey conducted by the Australian Institute of Criminology in July 2020, an estimated 10% of women across the country had experienced domestic violence of some kind in the previous six months. Of these women affected, 66% said the assaults grew worse during the lockdown mandated at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Domestic violence is often associated with physical attacks, but the definition of domestic violence in Australia — and much of the world, for that matter — is much broader, and includes psychological abuse.

If you have been accused or formally charged with domestic violence, it is important to understand what rises to the definition of psychological abuse so you and your solicitor can mount an informed and successful defence. A more in-depth comprehension of psychological abuse may help you corroborate that the law is on your side in this matter and that the charges are spurious.

What is psychological abuse defined as in Australia?
As noted by the National Domestic and Family Violence Bench Book, both emotional and psychological abuse are actions or activities that are designed to diminish, disparage, belittle, or exert control over another individual. These actions do not have to be physical in nature; they can be strictly verbal — or even non-verbal.

The definition of psychological abuse is similar for what is on the books in Queensland via the Domestic and Family Violence Protection Act 2012. It manifests itself when behaviour “torments, intimidates, harasses” or is considered offensive to the person at which they are directing their anger.

Furthermore, actions can be considered psychological abuse if the victim becomes fearful of the alleged perpetrator based on the things they said they would do — i.e., threats — or if such acts robbed them of their self-esteem.

What are some examples of psychological abuse?
Psychological abuse can manifest itself in several different ways. The National Domestic and Family Violence Bench Book offers some examples of what actions meet the psychological abuse standard:

  • Stalking someone in a private or work environment.
  • Monitoring where a person lives, whether through technology, on foot or other tracing methods.
  • Threatening to physically assault someone’s children, parents, siblings, friends, or pets.
  • Damaging someone’s property or threatening to do so.
  • Preventing someone from interacting with their belongings (such as a car) or the people they know.
  • Abandonment or threatening someone (e.g., a spouse or child) if that person does not do what the alleged perpetrator requests.

All these scenarios fall under the broad umbrella of psychological abuse in Australia.  A few other more specific examples, as enumerated in the Domestic and Family Violence Protection Act 2012, include withholding a person’s medication from them (or issuing an ultimatum that they will), threatening to disclose a person’s sexual orientation without their permission and directing racial taunts at them.

What is the punishment for psychological abuse?
At present, in Queensland, psychological abuse is typically not considered a criminal offence that can result in a formal punishment or sentencing by a judge or jury; yet there are some exceptions to this.
As noted in an opinion piece published in ABC News and written by scholars from Deakin University, if a court were to issue a protective order to a victim that barred a convicted perpetrator from contacting that protected individual, they could be charged with a crime if they violate the order, and their conduct rises to the definition of psychological abuse. For example, if the person were to track a victim’s movements or whereabouts, that would be considered stalking, which is a form of psychological abuse.

Because psychological abuse is not usually a criminal offence, there is no maximum or minimum sentence in the event of conviction. Lawmakers and advocacy groups have called for a maximum 10-year penalty for “coercive control,” or abusive behaviour that is conducted psychologically, emotionally or via technology (e.g. social media, texting or email).

If you have been accused of domestic violence or have violated the terms of your protective order, contact Russo Lawyers. We can provide you with the legal guidance you need to move forward. Call us at 1800 558 533 or contact us online to arrange a consultation

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