Major overhaul of family courts to protect abuse victims announced by Ministry of Justice

Report into child contact cases found abuse is systematically minimised by the court process, and that an adversarial process often worsened conflict between parents, which could retraumatise victims and their children.

The Ministry of Justice has today (25.06.20) announced an overhaul of the way family courts deal with child contact cases in response to a report ‘Assessing the Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children’s Cases’.

The report sets out concerns about how family courts address domestic abuse and child sexual abuse in private law children proceedings. Submissions highlighted a feeling that:

“abuse is systematically minimised, ranging from children’s voices not being heard, allegations being ignored, dismissed or disbelieved, to inadequate assessment of risk, traumatic court processes, perceived unsafe child arrangements, and abusers exercising continued control through repeat litigation and the threat of repeat litigation.”

Sweeping reforms will see more victims of domestic abuse given access to separate building entrances and waiting rooms as well as protective screens to shield them from their alleged abuser in court. Ministers will also make it easier for judges to issue barring orders which prevent abusive ex-partners from repeatedly dragging their victims back to court – which can be used as a form of continuing domestic abuse.

Fundamental reform of how the courts hear cases, through a new investigative approach, will be trialled as part of the Integrated Domestic Abuse Courts pilot – these consider family and criminal matters in parallel in order to provide more consistent support for victims. Emphasis will be placed on getting to the root of an issue and ensuring all parties are safe and able to provide evidence on an equal footing – without the retraumatising effects of being in court with an abusive ex-partner.

Additionally, Ministers will launch a review into the presumption of ‘parental involvement’ that often encourages a child’s relationship with both parents, unless the involvement of that parent would put the child at risk.

Sarah Green, Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition says: 

“This comprehensive report on what happens in family courts as child contact arrangements are argued over has findings that are upsetting to read in places. It describes, for example, how a “pro contact culture” leads to the routine minimising and dismissal of serious concerns about domestic violence and child abuse. It amounts to a finding that the family courts are an actual scene of child protection failure, and that they enable the continuing abuse of women by ex partners.

“The report is very authoritative, based around an expert Panel and the gathering of a wide range of evidence and input. Women’s organisations have said for many years that abusive ex-partners use the family courts to continue harassment and harm to women and children. This moment must be a watershed, with high level political leadership to drive through the changes that are needed.

“We strongly welcome the planned review of ‘presumed parental involvement’. We also support the intention to move to a more investigative as to adversarial approach in family courts, and more integration between criminal and family courts which is long overdue. The commitment to make this system work better for children and for adult survivors of abuse will need champions and resources if it is to succeed.”

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