A recent study carried out by Women’s Aid highlights the experience of victims of domestic abuse within the family courts. Victims have revealed that their experiences have been negative and traumatising. Recommendations have been put forward to ensure family courts remain a place of safety where children’s rights are put first and fears of victims are listened to and respected.
The last 12 months have seen a number of welcome developments around child contact cases in the family court. In December 2017 the government revised the legal aid requirements for victims of domestic abuse by removing the five year time limit for evidence of domestic abuse and widening the types of evidence allowed to prove domestic abuse. Research however continues to demonstrate consistent failings of the family courts to ensure that victims and their children are safe.
There are now calls for an overhaul of the family courts as victims have expressed that their abuse is not taken seriously by the court and other professionals involved in the child contact process. Victims tell of living with anxiety and fear about their child’s safety during contact visits, as well as their own whilst facilitating contact, and the possibility of being taken back to court by their former partner at any time.
The UK government has recently consulted on a new domestic abuse bill, which would ban abusers cross examining their victims in family courts, as recommended by Women’s Aid. Women’s Aid have also recommend that victims should be guaranteed access to special protections measures in the family courts (such as separate entrances and exits, waiting rooms, screens and video links), as has been guaranteed in the criminal courts in the new domestic abuse bill.
Several other recommendations have also been put forward to push change within the family courts, including:
Calls for an independent statutory inquiry to conduct an in depth examination of the family courts’ handling of domestic abuse
Improved education and awareness on human rights and domestic abuse for all professionals involved in child contact cases
The Ministry of Justice and the President of the Family Division to clarify the approach on parenting in cases involving domestic abuse
The creation of a national oversight group for the implementation of Practice Direction 12J which sets out the requirements of the family court in any case where domestic abuse is alleged or admitted
Ensuring a safer approach is taken to unsupervised contact for a parent who is awaiting trial of bail for domestic abuse related offences, or where there are ongoing criminal proceedings for domestic abuse
Better regulation of expert witnesses in the family court
Actions to prevent the family courts being used to perpetuate post separation and financial abuse
Better, empowering support for victims of domestic abuse
It is hoped this push for change will result in an improved experience for victims of domestic abuse within the family courts and greater understanding and training will result in safer contact for children.
By Hasina Desai and Karen Atkins in the family law department