Who is the Victim?

Identifying The Victim In Coercive Control Cases

Full Report


Domestic abuse (DA) is a key priority for all UK based police forces. However, when gendered understandings of DA and coercive control are not explicit in official legislation, identifying the primary perpetrator and victim can be difficult – especially in cases of coercive control. Perpetrators of coercive control can be highly manipulative in presenting the circumstances of what has happened. Elsewhere, this has been found to lead to dual arrests, the denial of victim status for women and the misidentification of the primary perpetrator. Little work has looked at these issues in England and Wales in relation to coercive control and how officers gather evidence to support their decisions on who the victim is. 

This project sought to analyse:

1. How are the victim and perpetrator identified by police officers in coercive control cases? When the victim and perpetrator
are identified, what informs the actions taken (or not) by police officers?

2. How do victim/ survivors feel about the ways in which victims and perpetrators are identified during the police frontline response?
If they have been (in)correctly identified as a victim/perpetrator how did that impact upon their subsequent engagement in the investigation process? How might the process of victim   identification be improved, if at all?

The project used mixed methods and involved four stages. Firstly, analysis of quantitative data relating to 2320 coercive control offences recorded in our partner force from 2019-2021 inclusive. Secondly, a deep dive analysis of 58 coercive control case files. Thirdly, 10 interviews with victim-survivors ranging from 1 to 2 hours in length. Finally, 13 interviews with police officers of varying ranks and engagement with domestic abuse.

Key findings

Whilst there is further excavation of this data to be done, there are several general observations that can be made on the basis of it for the purposes of this report.

This work points to the ongoing presence of stereotypes surrounding the ideal victim and/or what real victim behaviour might look like. Both concerns were referred to by the victim-survivors who took part in this study. However, the issue of misidentification of the primary perpetrator did not emerge as an issue in the same way as it has in other jurisdictions, such as Australia (Reeves, 2021). The case file analysis and police officer testimonies talk of the need to ‘dig deeper’ in cases of coercive control, and officers also expressed informed awareness of the manipulative abilities of perpetrators.

However, the victim-survivors interviewed highlighted issues with police officers understanding and identifying them as the primary victim, largely due to conceptions of ‘ideal victimhood’ and systems abuse by the perpetrator.

Furthermore, victim-survivors highlighted issues with communication in the policing response. The victim-survivors interviewed in this project were not always aware of the rationale lying behind the police response to them and this might be a point of contact open for further improvement.

Overall, it may be that the different findings found in this study to those found in other jurisdictions may well lie in the fact that coercive control has now been an offence for nearly 8 years and the policing responses articulated here reflects the learning processes that have
been undergone during this time. That such learning has taken place is illustrated in both the quantitative and qualitative data presented in this report.

The research was conducted by Prof Sandra Walklate (University Of Liverpool), Dr Charlotte Barlow (University of Central Lancashire), and Emma Finnegan (University of Liverpool). The authors extend their thanks to the generous support for this project given by police partners and victim-survivors. 

For further information please contact Sandra Walklate by email (walks@liverpool.ac.uk)

Report date: 01/09/2023.