This briefing reports “the urgent need for an end to cross-examination of survivors of domestic abuse by their abuser in the family court if they do not have legal representation. All survivors must be protected from physical or emotional harm whilst on the family court estate and taking part in child arrangements order proceedings. Women and children’s experiences of domestic abuse do not end when the relationship with their abuser ends.” The briefing goes on to say “The impact of unsafe child contact in families where there has been, or still is, domestic abuse can be devastating. Whilst only a minority (one in ten) of parental separations reach the family courts in England and Wales, domestic violence is the most common welfare issue raised.” These issues were explored by Geese Theatre’s powerful performance of ‘Stay’ at NACCC’s conference last year. Stay depicts the full range of abuses that a person might perpetrate on their partner (not just physical violence) and showed the effect of controlling and coercive behaviour continuing into the family court.
To investigate these issues further the APPG on Domestic Violence, supported by Women’s Aid, conducted a Parliamentary Hearing on domestic abuse, child contact and the family courts in order to shed light on the key issues survivors of domestic abuse and their children are facing in the family courts and to make some clear recommendations for change. Elizabeth Coe, NACCC’s CEO was a panel member at the hearing which highlighted key areas of concern relating to the experiences of survivors of domestic abuse in the family courts.
- A need to ensure safe child contact, not contact ‘at any cost’.
- Access to Legal Aid and Litigants in Person.
- A lack of access to special measures in family courts.
- Implementing Practice Direction 12J – Child Arrangements and Contact Orders: Domestic Violence and Harm.
- Understanding the impact of domestic abuse on children.
- Specialist domestic violence training throughout the family court judiciary.
- The role of child contact centres in supervised and non-supervised contact.
- A presumption that the father is competent to provide safe and appropriate care and parenting despite their abusive behaviour and assessing the risk a perpetrator of domestic abuse poses to their child.
The safety of survivors of domestic abuse and their children is frequently being compromised whilst going through the court process…
The hearing found that “whilst there is some good practice, the family court is regularly failing to ensure the protection of women and children’s safety and well-being through allowing the cross-examination of victims by perpetrators and the lack of available special measures. These key factors alongside the other challenges outlined in this report often combine to leave women in unacceptably vulnerable situations and they consequently feel unable to represent their child(ren)’s wishes and best interests in the family courts.” The report states that “not only does a lack of understanding of the impact of domestic abuse on children and awareness of the evidence have potentially dangerous consequences for the child(ren)’s and mother’s immediate safety and well-being, it can also have much longer term consequences. The impact of abuse which continues after the relationship has officially ended is routinely misunderstood and often results in contact still being granted.
The APPG heard about specific challenges with attending the family courts in Wales, where women in rural communities may only have the option of one bus or train route to get to the court, and are therefore inevitably coming face to face with their abuser and are being put in dangerous situations. “There are transport issues [in Wales] as transport isn’t widely available so a perpetrator and survivor are having to travel on the same bus to get to a contact centre or court. There are incidents of violence that are happening on public transport.”
“A contact centre does have the power to refuse a referral for contact if they are in any way concerned about it”
Key issues around child contact centres were raised during the hearing included inappropriate court orders for contact being made to supported contact centres, voluntary contact centre staff often having difficulties in challenging these inappropriate contact orders and having to risk assess self-referrals for contact. Where an inappropriate order for contact in a supported contact centre has been made, the APPG heard that some contact centres find it challenging to push back on these referrals. Elizabeth Coe said at the hearing: “Some centres find it difficult to refuse a judge when they want to make an order”. The hearing heard the following case study provided by NACCC. The contact in the case below was refused by a supported contact centre:“The children’s father who was seeking contact stormed out of court hearing in a rage. When the mother came out of the court, he knocked her to the ground in front of a court official and CCTV cameras. The judge had the matter referred to the police and insisted that security be available at the next hearing. A report was requested to look into the potential risk to the physical and psychological impact on the children, because of the father’s history of being unable to control his anger. The court ordered that pending the report the father was to have contact with his children at a supported child contact centre. The judge insisted in the order that the centre be informed that the father had a history of violence towards women”
The briefing makes it clear that “It is important to ensure that there is a clear pathway for contact centre staff, whether volunteers or professionals, to challenge inappropriate contact orders that have been made in the family courts…Contact centre staff must be aware that they are able to refuse referrals where contact in their centre has been ordered inappropriately.” The briefing also states that “it is imperative that the training provided to the family court judiciary, (including Judges, barristers and solicitors, as well as frontline staff in family courts, child contact centres and all associated agencies) is on-going and provides individuals with a comprehensive understanding of the gendered nature of domestic abuse, the power and control dynamics of domestic abuse and the insidious nature of coercive and controlling behaviour.”
“‘Contact with the child, no matter what’ has been shown to lead to unsafe child contact… family court judges must never order child contact in supported contact centres where a risk assessment has found that the abusive parent still poses a risk to the child or non-abusive parent.”
Based on the Parliamentary Hearing and the evidence submitted, the APPG has developed seven key recommendations and calls for action to address the failings surrounding domestic abuse, the family court and child contact. They are urging the Government and the family court judiciary to implement the recommendations as soon as possible.
The APPG believes that, until these calls for action are implemented, survivors of domestic abuse and their children will continue to be left vulnerable and in danger by a family court system that “claims to put their best interests first but is marred by a culture of contact ‘at all costs’”.
- The Ministry of Justice and the President of the Family Division must clarify that there must not be an assumption of shared parenting in child contact cases where domestic abuse is a feature, and child contact should be decided based on an informed judgement of what’s in the best interests of child.
- The Ministry of Justice must urgently set up an independent, national oversight group overseeing and advising upon the implementation of Practice Direction12J – Child Arrangements and Contact Order: Domestic Violence and Harm.
- The President of the Family Division must ensure family court judges never order child contact in supported contact centres where a risk assessment has found that the abusive parent still poses a risk to the child or non-abusive parent.
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