The way that domestic abuse has been treated in family law proceedings has long been a topic for debate. Whether it be about victims having to face the perpetrator of abuse in court or be exposed to cross-examination directly by them should they be unrepresented, this is a subject that regularly raises concern.
Many measures can be implemented at court hearings to minimise the impact that taking a domestic violence case to court can have upon often vulnerable and distressed victims of abuse. The court can arrange for separate waiting rooms, and ‘special measures’ within the court arena itself, such as screens or video link, can be utilised – usually at the request of the person requiring these services.
There is growing evidence that family proceedings can often present a further opportunity for a perpetrator of abuse to try and coerce and manipulate their former partner. They will use the children as a means to remain in the victim’s life and force them to come into contact in court, thereby causing further emotional harm.
Steps should be taken to ensure that the court system does not unconsciously enable perpetrators of domestic violence to further damage vulnerable victims of abuse.
On 15th September 2016, the House of Commons held a debate on domestic abuse victims in family proceedings. This was prompted by a Women’s Aid report from January 2016 entitled ‘Nineteen Child Homicides’ which highlighted cases whereby nineteen children were killed by perpetrators of domestic abuse.
It was due to unsafe contact arrangements that these killings were made possible. Sadly, over half of these arrangements had been formalised by way of court order.
There is an embedded culture in the family courts to push to ensure that the ‘non-resident’ parent has contact with the children, and quite rightly so. However, where domestic abuse is alleged or proven, consideration should be given to the impact this has on the family as a whole. That is not to say that the court should no longer strive to ensure that a child has a relationship with both parents, but that the arrangements should be managed carefully and appropriately.
Understandably, the report recommended that there is an urgent need for independent review of how the family courts tackle cases where domestic abuse is reported. The three key themes were:
- The importance of recognising domestic abuse as harm to children.
- Professional understanding of the power and control dynamics of domestic abuse.
- Understanding parental separation as a risk factor.
It was stated at the debate, “These are difficult cases, but it must be possible to provide support for victims, special measures and, indeed, a more proactive role for judges. A big change in the criminal courts was that judges began to be much more proactive and to say, ‘This is my problem. I must deal with it. It is my duty to provide a better environment for victims on their journey through our courts.’”
In light of the recommendations made by Women’s Aid in their report, the president of the family division has asked a High Court judge to review the practice direction in this regard.
Kelly Willmott is a family law solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in Milton Keynes.