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Judiciary moves to protect victims of domestic violence and their children

Women’s Aid has strongly welcomed the government and family court judiciary’s commitment to protecting children and survivors of domestic abuse.

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The charity is marking the first anniversary of the launch of the Child First campaign and report Nineteen Child Homicides by handing the Child First petition into Number 10 Downing Street. The petition, hosted by 38 Degrees, has been signed by over 40,000 supporters.

In the last year since the charity published Nineteen Child Homicides, another case has been identified of a child killed due to unsafe contact. The child was ordered to live with their father, a known perpetrator of domestic abuse, by the family courts. Months later, the child was dead. This means 20 children have been killed in 11 years due to unsafe contact with an abusive parent.

Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said: “If we had launched the report this year, it would be called Twenty Child Homicides. The family courts simply must put children first. The deaths of these twenty children were all avoidable. Their fathers were all known as violent abusers to at least one statutory agency – yet still their desire for contact was put above any concern for the children.

“Less than 1% of child contact applications are refused, but domestic abuse features in 70-90% of cases going to the family courts. Yet, there is still a misguided belief among too many judges and other professionals that, because a relationship has ended, so has the domestic abuse. This, coupled with a toxic culture of ‘contact at all costs’, can prove fatal, as these homicides show.

“But the tide is turning. We are delighted by the revision of Practice Direction 12J, thanks to Sir James Munby and Mr Justice Cobb, as well as the Government’s recent commitment to ending cross-examination in the family courts – both key recommendations made in Nineteen Child Homicides, and key asks of Child First,” adds Ms Neate.

PD12J was published in its original form in 2008 in response to the first report of Women’s Aid into ‘Twenty-Nine Child Homicides’. It was substantially revised in April 2014, following the report of Professor Hunter and Adrienne Barnett for the Family Justice Council to include:

  1. A substantially revised definition of domestic abuse in accordance with the revised cross-government definition;
  2. The inclusion of a statement of General Principles as a judicial aid to the application of the Practice Direction;
  3. The prescription of clearer expectations in relation to fact-finding hearings;
  4. Tighter provisions for the making of interim child arrangement orders.

Women’s Aid  has made  a  number  of  recommendations  which  it  believes,  if  implemented,  will  render   the   Practice   Direction   and   its   implementation   “more   robust”. The APPG has also made a number of recommendations.

“I have considered the representations made by Women’s Aid, the APPG, and others with care and have concluded that revisions can usefully be made to the Practice Direction; I recommend these to the President,” said Mr Justice Cobb.

Among the key revisions are:

  1. Paragraph 4 has been re-worked to go some way to addressing one of the main concerns of Women’s Aid and the APPG that the presumption contained in section 1(2A) of the Children Act 1989 operates to require ‘contact at all costs’ in all cases, without a proper evaluation of the risk of harm from domestic abuse; therefore, where the involvement of a parent in a child’s life would place the child or other parent at risk of suffering harm from abuse, it is suggested that the presumption would be displaced.
  2. Paragraph 6  has  been  amended  to  include  a  requirement  for  the  court  to ensure that the court process is not being used as a means in itself to perpetuate  coercion,  control  or  harassment  by  an  abusive  parent;
  3. Paragraph 10  includes  a  proposal  for  the  courts  to  consider  more  carefully  the  waiting  arrangements  at  court  prior  to  the  hearing,  and arrangements for entering and exiting the court building; This follows reports from Women’s Aid that  55%  of  women  respondents  to  their  recent  survey  (2015)  who  had  been  to  the  Family  Courts  had  no  access  to  any  special  measures and 39%  were  physically  abused   by  their  former partner  in  the  family
  4. Paragraph 28  has  been  amended  to  afford  further  protection  for  the  alleged   victim   of   abuse   from   cross-examination   by   an   alleged   unrepresented perpetrator.
  5. Paragraph 33  recommends  that  in  a  case  where  domestic  abuse  has  been   proved,   a   court   shall   obtain   a   safety   and   risk   assessment   conducted  by  a  specialist  domestic abuse  practitioner  working  for  an  appropriately   accredited   agency; where a risk assessment concludes that a parent poses a risk to a child or to the other parent, contact via a supported contact centre, or contact supervised by a parent or relative, is not appropriate.
  6. Greater consistency and clarity of language has been introduced, by adopting a common test of ‘protection from risk of harm’; ‘harm’ itself is now specifically defined within the Practice Direction, adopting the language of section 31(9) of the Children Act 1989.

“We are marking the campaign’s first anniversary by taking our petition to 10 Downing Street – to celebrate our achievements this past year, and to highlight why these issues matter. There is much more work to be done, but we are making progress. Together we are making great progress on behalf of vulnerable children, and we must keep up the momentum,” concluded Ms Neate.

Find out more about the Child First campaign here

Review of Practice Direction 12J FPR 2010 - Child Arrangement and Contact Orders: Domestic Violence and Harm

 

 

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