In a letter, shared exclusively with The Independent, over 40 experts in the family law and violence against women and girls sectors urged the government to take urgent action to protect domestic abuse victims.
The experts warned the Ministry of Justice released a report around a year ago stating the family courts are putting domestic abuse victims and their children at risk of additional harm, yet the system remains wholly unchanged since the research was published.
Olive Craig, senior legal officer at Rights of Women, a legal charity which spearheaded the letter, said: “The women we support on our family law advice line tell us nothing is changing – the minimisation of abuse and pro-contact culture that is causing so much harm is still alive and well.”
She warned the government’s “Harm Panel Report” should have been a “wake-up call for the system” as she urged the professionals who work within it to consider how it “re-traumatises and further abuses women and children”.
Ms Craig added: “The basic and immediately actionable measures we are asking for should already be the norm and further delay in introducing them is a betrayal of thousands of adult and child victims of abuse.”
The letter warns even though the government previously recognised the family courts need to be urgently overhauled, thousands of families are still grappling with the exact same problems unveiled in the government report released this time last year.
The signatories, whose letter is addressed to the Ministry of Justice, the Family Justice Council, the President of the Family Division, as well as the Family Procedure Rules Committee, noted the current system is also placing child sexual abuse survivors at risk.
“We’ve been in family court for three and a half years,” one woman said. “Nothing has changed over that period, in fact, I feel it has got worse. Recently I had a hearing on Microsoft Teams and no special measures could be arranged, despite there being a restraining order in place and the court knowing it. This made the hearing awful as he snarled at me throughout.”
Another added: “At the last hearing, I didn’t feel safe at all. We couldn’t see each other but the judge allowed my ex to verbally abuse me over Zoom.”
Dr Adrienne Barnett, who specialised in family law while practising as a barrister for more than 30 years, told The Independent every week she is contacted by domestic abuse survivors who have been “traumatised by years of abusive litigation and have either lost residence of their children to their abusers or are at imminent risk of doing so”.
She added: “Some women are afraid to even raise the abuse because they risk being accused of parental alienation and feel powerless to protect their children.
“Survivors have said that if they knew how bad the family court proceedings would be they would have stayed with their abusers. They and their children cannot wait for change.”
Dr Barnett, a senior lecturer in law who specialises in domestic abuse and the family courts, noted the Ministry of Justice Harm Panel shined a light on “systemic” issues in the family courts which cause domestic abuse to be “minimised, sidelined or ignored”. Both children and domestic abuse victims are being “silenced and forced into unsafe contact with perpetrators of abuse”, she added.
Every four days in England and Wales, a woman is killed by a current or ex-partner. While a 2016 study by Women’s Aid, a leading domestic abuse charity, revealed the cases of 19 children in 12 families who were all intentionally killed by a parent who was also a known perpetrator of domestic abuse. All of the perpetrators were male and fathers to the children they killed.
The perpetrators all had access to their children via formal or informal child contact arrangements – with more than half of the custody provisions having been ordered through the courts.
Farah Nazeer, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said she had listened to “desperate experiences” survivors of domestic abuse endure in the family courts – with abusers “weaponising child contact arrangements to further abuse women and children, and unsafe child contact decisions leading to serious harm”.
She added: “We know that the implementation of the harm panel report could deliver real change, and we won’t stop fighting for it to be delivered in full.
“In particular, we urgently need reform to the presumption of parental involvement in the family courts, which is leading to a deadly ‘contact at all costs’ approach in cases of domestic abuse. We cannot wait any longer to keep children safe.”
Parents can face fines or even jail sentences if they do not make sure their child sees an ex-partner on a supervised or unsupervised visit when court-ordered contact is in place.
Lisa King OBE, of Refuge, the UK’s largest provider of shelters for domestic abuse victims, which has signed the open letter, said: “Too often we are hearing of survivors of domestic abuse cross-examined by their perpetrators and suffering a terrifying and stressful experience in the family courts.”
London’s victims commissioner previously told The Independent family courts are responsible for “state-sanctioned abuse” of domestic abuse victims as they allow violent parents to torment their ex-partners through the legal process.
Claire Waxman said the family courts have emboldened domestic abusers to “continue cycles of abuse, including control, unwanted contact and harassment”.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We are determined to keep victims and children safe and our landmark Domestic Abuse Act will do more than ever before to protect them, while bringing more perpetrators of these devastating crimes to justice.
“Last year we announced an overhaul of how family courts deal with domestic abuse cases, including extra protections for victims, blocking abusers from repeatedly dragging them back to court and we are reviewing the presumption of parental involvement where there is a risk of harm to a child.”
Anyone who requires help or support can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline which is open 24/7 365 days per year on 0808 2000 247 or via their website https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/