‘We have seen mindsets shifting, court cases over coercive control will start to snowball’
Campaigners hope the number of coercive control cases brought before the courts will soar after high-profile convictions helped to raise awareness of the crime.
This week, two more men were sentenced in separate cases involving coercive control, taking the total number of convictions to at least 10 since 2019.
On Tuesday, former garda Paul Moody was jailed for three years and three months.
The 43-year-old harassed, threatened, assaulted, stole from and controlled a cancer-stricken woman for more than four years after they met online in 2017.
His victim recalled how Moody told her the only reason he had visited her while she was in hospital was to “watch you bleed to death”.
On Thursday, Dean Ward, formerly of Ballintlea, Hollyfort, Gorey, Co Wexford, was sentenced to 17 years in prison for raping, assaulting and coercively controlling a woman in the course of a six-week relationship.
Ward sprayed Mace in her face, tied her up, choked her and then raped her, threatened her with a hammer and punched her in the face.
He controlled her access to friends and family, took over her online banking, monitored her whereabouts and her mobile phone and removed her contraceptive device while she slept.
Coercive control, which refers to an intense pattern of controlling, abusive, manipulative or violent behaviour, was first criminalised in Ireland in a law passed in 2018.
It made Ireland one of only a few countries in the world that had criminalised emotional abuse.
According to An Garda Síochána, there were eight convictions for coercive control between 2019 and 2021.
There have been more than 50 such charges since the law was passed.
Sarah Benson, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, said a lot of work had already gone in to training gardaí and watching how coercive control cases make their way through the legal system.
“What we’re hoping we will now see is a snowball effect and an acceleration in the number of cases coming and I believe that is happening,” Ms Benson said.
She said there had needed to be a “mindset shift” in the criminal justice system after coercive control was criminalised.
“We are so used to seeing people being prosecuted based on a single incident. For example, a sexual assault that happened at a particular moment in time in a particular set of circumstances.
“Whereas coercive control is effectively what a domestic abuse relationship is, and it’s a pattern of behaviour over a period of time that has in some cases an incremental but in some cases an acute impact on a victim.
“What we are looking at is someone who is waging a campaign over a period of time, using tactics some of which may not be a crime on their own, some of which are, but are all part of an overall pattern.”
Ms Benson said that, initially, abusers were being charged with coercive control alongside other often physically violent offences.
However, as public understanding of coercive control has increased, Ms Benson said her organisation was now encountering examples of individuals being charged with coercive control as a
“We are starting to see coercive control cases coming through now that might involve sustained harassment, bombardment of phone calls or isolation,” she said.
“I think our public awareness of just how severe coercive control can actually be will hopefully help our legal system to start to prosecute cases of coercive control on their own.”
Former garda Moody was sent to prison this week after prosecutors agreed to a plea deal.
Ms Benson said there were a number of factors in the Moody case that influenced the decision of the prosecutors to accept a deal, including the health of his victim, who is terminally ill.
But she added that the maximum sentence of five years for coercive control seemed low considering the nature of the crime.
“It does make you think if there are going to be plea bargains, should we have to rely on multiple charges in order for someone who has been coercively controlling to get a long sentence?” she said.
“Particularly when you consider other offences like physical abuse and harassment are actually evidence of coercive control.
“If we had a higher sentence for coercive control, would that make the system more effective and easier for survivors in particular?
“It’s something to consider, and it’s still early days, relatively speaking, for the legislation.”