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Childrens safety put at risk in family courts

Discrimination within the family courts; childrens safety put at risk, a report by Women’s Aid and Queen Mary University has claimed.

The report reveals that there is a prevalence of “damaging gendered stereotypes and harmful attitudes towards domestic abuse survivors and mothers within the family courts” which is putting survivors and their children’s safety at risk and preventing them from accessing justice.

The report urges the government to carry out an independent inquiry into family courts in a bid to eradicate the systematic gender discrimination.

Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said: “For far too long, survivors have endured continued abuse at the hands of their abuser in the family courts. Enough is enough. We want to shine a light on what is really going on behind the closed doors of the family courts, and call time on the injustice being done to survivors of domestic abuse and their children.”

The report collected quantitative and qualitative data from 72 women living in England on their experiences of the family courts.

The report revealed:

  • Survivors reported that they were repeatedly not believed, were blamed for experiencing abuse and seen as unstable by judges, barristers and Cafcass officers.
  • Almost half of survivors (48%) reported that there was no fact-finding into the allegations of domestic abuse in their case.
  • One survivor reported that her abusive ex-partner was able to cross-examine her about her sexual history during child contact proceedings.

One anonymous survivor explained: “The judge said: ‘I see that you’ve been in a previous relationship that was quite abusive.’ I thought: ‘you think that I attract abusive men’. And I just felt so degraded.”

Women’s Aid launched the Child First campaign in January 2016,which urged the family courts and the government to put the safety of children back at the heart of all contact decisions made by the family court judiciary.

There has been some progress made since the campaign launched with the revision of Practice Direction 12J, the guidance given to family court judges in child contact cases where there is an allegation of domestic abuse, and a government commitment to ban the practice of abusers cross-examining victims in the family courts.

However, the report unveils that there continues to be a lack of protections within the family courts for survivors of domestic abuse. One quarter of survivors surveyed reported that they had been cross-examined by their abusive ex-partner during the court hearings and three in five survivors reported that there were no special measures in place such as separate waiting rooms, different entry/exit times, screen or video link.

“These lack of measures to protect survivors from abuse during the court process harms their ability to give evidence and prevents them from effectively advocating for their children in court,” said the report.

The report also revealed a clear link between survivors’ experience of domestic abuse, including coercive control and post-separation abuse, and risks to children’s wellbeing and safety.

  • Two thirds of survivors reported that their abusive ex-partner had also been emotionally abusive towards their child/children.
  • Almost two in five survivors reported that their abusive ex-partner had also been physically abusive towards their child/children.
  • Yet unsupervised contact with an abusive parent was most likely to be awarded in the cases in our sample.

This reinforced findings from a recent report by Cafcass and Women’s Aid which revealed that unsupervised contact was ordered at the final hearing in almost two in five cases where there was an allegation of domestic abuse. In the most extreme cases, contact decisions threatened survivors and their children’s human right to life when contact orders placed them in unsafe proximity to abusive ex-partners or confidential information about their address or location was revealed during the court process.

Survivors’ lack of access to a fair hearing is clearly putting children’s wellbeing and safety at risk, said the report.

Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, added: “We know that perpetrators of domestic abuse are using the family courts to continue to control and abuse victims, and that the sexist attitudes entrenched within the family courts are enabling that abuse. That’s why we are calling on the government to commission an independent inquiry into the family courts to review the culture, practice and outcomes in child contact cases where there is an allegation of domestic abuse. Only a wholesale review of the family courts can bring about the change we need to see to ensure that they operate safely, effectively and fairly in future.

“It is a matter of urgency that the government bans the unacceptable practice of the cross-examination of victims by abusers – survivors have been waiting over a year since the government committed to bring this legislation forward. We also want to see compulsory and ongoing training for all professionals – from judges and solicitors through to court support staff and Cafcass officers – on domestic abuse co-delivered by specialists like Women’s Aid. This must cover coercive control, post-separation abuse and how children experience domestic abuse so that all professionals can identify and understand domestic abuse to effectively safeguard children and non-abusive parents throughout the court process.

“We’re calling time’s up on a family court system that is not just, we’re calling time’s up on a family court system that does not take allegations of domestic abuse seriously, we’re calling time’s up on a family court system that shows attitudes of deep-rooted gender discrimination. We want a family courts system where survivors can access justice free from abuse and for children’s safety to be put at the heart of all decisions made by the family courts,” she concluded.

What about my right not to be abused?

 

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