Domestic Abuse Commissioner calls for ‘wide-reaching reforms’ to ensure safety of children in the Family Courts and accelerate government plans
The Domestic Abuse Commissioner has released a report highlighting ongoing concerns about the traumatising experience of the Family Court for victims and survivors of domestic abuse.
The report outlines the Commissioner’s plan for wholesale change in the Family Court process.
This comes as new research with legal practitioners found that more than 80% of those surveyed felt that the Family Courts were likely to re-traumatise victims and survivors of domestic abuse.
The Commissioner regularly hears from victims and survivors who describe how allegations of domestic abuse are minimised during proceedings, which are often very lengthy and costly, placing their children at serious risk of harm. Many people going through the Court are fearful that their best interests aren’t being considered as their family’s future hangs in the balance.
The report amplifies calls to centre the experiences of children as victims of domestic abuse to ensure that their voices are clearly heard during proceedings The voice of the child has been all but lost in the Court, and the Commissioner hopes that this report will bring it into the forefront of family law proceedings.
The Family Court operates behind a veil of secrecy and compared to the criminal courts, enforces very strict rules that stop proceedings being discussed outside its walls.
The report sets out new plans for the Commissioner to launch a pioneering national oversight mechanism which will, for the first time, uncover proceedings; observing and gathering information in relation to cases in the Family Court involving domestic abuse. This will be key to rebuilding public confidence in the system.
Alongside the new mechanism, the Commissioner is calling for a series of critical measures to be implemented at pace by the Government, including funding to ensure victims and survivors can access specialist support and legal aid.
Ms Jacobs said:
“I have heard from hundreds of victims and survivors. They tell me how they have been re-traumatised by private family law children proceedings and left fearing for their children’s safety.
It is imperative that the Family Court embodies a culture of safety and protection from harm, where children’s needs and the impact of domestic abuse are central considerations, and that all victims and survivors of domestic abuse consistently feel listened to and respected. This is currently not the case.
We have seen significant progress made by the government over the last three years, following the publication of the Harm Panel report, including allowing specialist advocates access to the court to support victims and the establishment of the pilot Pathfinder Courts in North Wales and Dorset to better support child and adult victims and survivors.”
Ms Jacobs also stated that is is clear that the pace of reform “must be accelerated”. She added:
“That’s why, I am pleased to set out plans for a pioneering monitoring and reporting mechanism to gain a much needed insight into the day-to-day of the Family Court in addressing domestic abuse. Public faith in the Family Court is essential: victims of domestic abuse must feel able to approach the court system with confidence that the safeguarding within the Domestic Abuse Act will be upheld to the highest level.”
The Commissioner is calling for sufficient funding to be allocated for its pilot phase and, subsequently, its national roll out.
Responding to the report, Lucy Hadley, Head of Policy at Women’s Aid, said:
“We welcome this important report from the Domestic Abuse Commissioner. The report highlights the systemic challenges facing survivors and their children when trying to secure safe contact arrangements after leaving an abuser.
The report’s findings support what survivors tell us everyday. Women report that family courts are harrowing and retraumatising, with the impact of domestic abuse being minimised and dangerous contact decisions still being made.
“Three years on from the Harm Panel report, which found deep-seated problems in how the family courts respond to domestic abuse, we demand justice and safety for survivors. Reform of the family courts is an urgent political priority and we welcome the report’s recommendations for change.”