Court Considers Coercive and Controlling Behaviour

In a case that caused quite a stir in legal circles on Twitter last week the court examined, amongst other things, allegations of coercive and controlling behaviour, and the effect that these behaviours may have had on the validity of a postnuptial agreement.  

The case of Traharne v Limb considered many legal issues, but of interest is the analysis that the court gave of the wife’s allegations of the husband’s purported coercive and controlling behaviour. These allegations are set out in paragraph 21 of the published version of the judgement. The wife sought findings as to the coercive and controlling behaviour she says she was subjected to by the husband as follows:

  1. Verbal abuse, shouting and screaming including threats of physical violence;
  2. Denigration, belittling and demeaning the wife to make her feel subordinate;
  3. Financial control to make the wife feel dependent on the husband;
  4. Ignoring, sulking and withdrawing affection if the wife refused to do as she was instructed, including to have sexual intercourse with the husband;
  5. The behaviour described at 4 above was then followed by the husband showering the wife with affection and gifts when she did bend to his will (known as ‘love bombing’);
  6. Gaslighting her: refusing to acknowledge instances of physical violence or his coercive and controlling behaviour and suggesting that any concerns expressed by the wife were made-up so as to undermine wife’s own understanding of the abuse and to erode her sense of lived reality and personal autonomy, resulting in a distorted sense of reality according to him;
  7. Controlling the running of the family home, regulating her everyday behaviour and limiting the wife’s ability to live freely in the home;
  8. Control of the wife’s life and time outside the home, including persistent requests for the wife to allow the respondent to place a tracker on her phone, not allowing her to have hobbies or attend clubs (despite him doing so) as he said this took time away from him, and not allowing her to do anything which she had not sought his prior approval for by noting it on a shared calendar in the kitchen of the family home;
  9. Restricting the wife’s contact with her wider support network, limiting or controlling interactions, telling the wife that her family and friends didn’t care about her, telling the wife that she must not discuss their relationship with any third parties and restricting the wife’s access to her mobile phone;
  10. Discouraging the wife from attending her church in order to restrict her time away from the husband, limit her independence and isolate her from a source of support;
  11. Pressuring the wife to drink alcohol with him, even when she indicated that she did not wish to, and putting pressure on the wife to not eat her supper until he was also ready to do so, regardless of how late he returned home from work or how hungry she was;
  12. Restricting the wife’s ability to travel, especially to visit her family and friends by discouraging her from doing so and then, if she did, ignoring her or criticising her for doing so on her return resulting in her feeling intimidated, downtrodden and low in confidence;
  13. Driving recklessly with the aim of scaring and intimidating the wife if she disagreed with him or made a mistake when giving the respondent directions; and
  14. The above behaviours were all exacerbated by the husband’s heavy drinking.

The husband denied the allegations.

The wife’s position was that the husband’s behaviour as set out above meant that she was unable freely to enter into the postnuptial agreement. Her position was that the agreement should be afforded no effect. She did present an alternative argument, which is beyond the scope of this article.

In this case, a medical expert was appointed as a single joint expert to give an opinion on:

  1. As to whether the wife was subjected to coercive and controlling behaviour in 2018 during the period in which the postnuptial agreement was negotiated and signed; and if so
  2. What the impact of such behaviour would likely have been on the wife’s psychological state, specifically (but not limited to) her mental freedom to enter in freely into that agreement.

It is established law that any standard vitiating factors such as duress, fraud or misrepresentation will negate any effect such an agreement might otherwise have. But unconscionable conduct such as undue pressure (falling short of duress) will also be likely to eliminate the weight to be attached to the agreement, and other unworthy conduct, such as exploitation of a dominant position to secure an unfair advantage, would reduce or eliminate it – comments of Ormrod L.J. in the case of Edgar v Edgar.

In the present case, the court viewed Ormrod L.J’s words relevant in that they had stood the test of time. Coercive and controlling behaviour would plainly be an example of undue pressure, exploitation of a dominant position or of relevant conduct, said the court.

The court felt that although it had to look at the allegations in a broad, holistic manner it could not avoid looking at them individually to determine their veracity. The court reached its findings after examining the allegations of coercive and controlling behaviour and some of them are quoted below:

‘The clear impression that I have is that this was a relationship that at times was tempestuous and that H would on occasions lose his temper. W says that they had major arguments about once a month. I do not accept that W was in fear of physical harm.’

In regard to wife’s allegation that the husband controlled her daily life, she had accepted that he never stopped her from doing what she wanted, and when pressed she couldn’t give an example of an activity that he stopped her from doing but said that he frowned on them. The court found nothing controlling in the husband’s request that the wife mark on the kitchen calendar when she was going to be out, as did the husband, adding that this was not him being controlling of her or requiring his approval, but simply enabled each to know when the other was to be in or out.

There was no evidence of the husband restricting the wife’s contact with family or friends or seeking to keep track of her.

The case contained a lot of evidence about the numerous examples that the wife gave and the husband’s responses.  We don’t to go into all of these in this article, but ultimately the court found that the husband’s behaviour could not objectively be described as coercive or controlling, or that it contributed to the wife entering into the postnuptial agreement.

What caused some controversy was the following comment by the Judge:

‘I very much regret that so much energy has been devoted to exploring this subject. The emotional and financial consequences on the parties has been considerable. It has also been entirely unnecessary.’

Some have felt that this comment may serve to dissuade those who have been subjected to coercive and controlling behaviour from raising this as an issue in future.

True coercive and controlling behaviour can have a devasting effect on those on the receiving end, who will usually benefit from additional support during separation and divorce.

Louise Barretto, Partner

Family Department

Should you have any questions about this article, or if you wish to speak to a member of our family team about your situation, you may call us on 020 7439 8692 and ask to speak to a member of our family team.

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