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Government announces overhaul of family courts to protect victims of domestic abuse

A major overhaul of family courts has been announced by the government in a bid to protect victims and survivors of domestic abuse.

- More victims will receive special protections in court

- Judges will have stronger powers to prevent abusers repeatedly dragging a victim back to court

- A new investigative court process will be trialled to reduce conflict

Justice Minister Alex Chalk said: “Every day the family courts see some of the most vulnerable in society and we have a duty to ensure they are protected and not put in danger.

“This report lays bare many hard truths about long-standing failings, but we are determined to drive the fundamental change necessary to keep victims and their children safe.

“But this is not all we’re doing. Our landmark Domestic Abuse Bill will transform society’s response to this destructive crime – protecting victims and pursuing perpetrators more than ever before,” he added.

The move follows an expert-led review into how the family courts handle domestic abuse and other serious offences raised concerns that victims and children were being put at unnecessary risk.

The expert panel for the review into how the family courts handle domestic abuse and other serious offences was made up of representatives from charities, the judiciary, family law practitioners and academia, and took the views of more than 1,200 individuals and organisations.

More victims of domestic abuse will be given access to separate building entrances and waiting rooms as well as protective screens to shield them from their alleged abuser in court.

It will also be 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.

The review found that an adversarial process in the family courts often worsened conflict between parents, which could retraumatise victims and their children.

Fundamental reform of how the courts hear cases will be trialled through a new investigative approach which will consider family and criminal matters in parallel in order to provide more consistent support for victims. This will be through the Integrated Domestic Abuse Courts pilot, with the emphasis being 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.

Ministers will also 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. This will examine whether the right balance is being struck between the risk of harm to children and victims, and the right of the child to have a relationship with both parents.

Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs said: “Problems in the family court are the single most common concern raised with me as the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, and I am glad to see this report published in time to implement its recommendations through the Domestic Abuse Bill.

“I welcome the work of the panel, and the breadth of evidence and expertise that has gone into this report, and in particular thank those victims and survivors who shared their experiences as part of this process,” she added.

The measures form part on an Implementation Plan published by ministers which sets out steps to better protect victims in the family courts including:

- Trialling an investigative, problem-solving approach in private family law proceedings as part of an upcoming pilot of Integrated Domestic Abuse Courts.

- Giving automatic entitlement for special measures in the courtroom for victims of domestic abuse going through the family courts – such as separate waiting rooms, entrances and screens – via a further amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill.

- Reviewing the presumption of ‘parental involvement’.

- A commitment to change the provision on ‘barring orders’, which prevent abusers repeatedly dragging ex-partners back to court over child arrangements.

- Inviting the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and Victims’ Commissioner to monitor and report on private family law proceedings involving victims of domestic abuse.

Nicki Norman, Acting CEO at Women’s Aid, said: ”This report marks a major step forward in exposing what women and children experiencing domestic abuse have been telling us for decades.

”The culture of disbelief identified by the panel is a barrier to courts making safe child contact arrangements in cases of domestic abuse. The result is that, all too often, survivors and their children experience the family courts as failing to effectively protect them.

”This welcome report must now deliver change. Guaranteeing special measures in the family courts is a critical protection which survivors have long called for. As a member of the expert panel, I look forward to seeing the government and family judiciary adopt all of the recommendations to change the culture of the family courts and deliver a safe and just contact system for survivors and their children,” she added.

The changes build on the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill, currently before Parliament. Key measures in the Bill include:

- Creating a statutory definition of domestic abuse, emphasising that domestic abuse is not just physical violence, but can also be emotional, coercive or controlling, and economic abuse.

- Establishing a Domestic Abuse Commissioner, to drive the response to domestic abuse.

- Introducing new Domestic Abuse Protection Notices and Domestic Abuse Protection Orders to further protect victims and place restrictions on the actions of offenders.

- Placing a duty on local authorities in England to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and their children in refuges and other safe accommodation

- Prohibiting perpetrators of abuse from cross-examining their victims in person in the family courts in England and Wales.

- Enabling domestic abuse offenders to be subject to polygraph testing as a condition of their licence following their release from custody.

- Placing the guidance supporting the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (‘Clare’s law’) on a statutory footing.

The Bill is backed by £35 million to support victims and their children – with an additional £76 million extra funding announced in May to support vulnerable victims during the Coronavirus pandemic, including victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence.

Assessing risk of harm to children and parents in private law children cases

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