Years after I escaped a marriage where I was emotionally, physically and financially abused, my ex-husband tried to control me by forcing me back to court to fight for my child.
This week a report found nine out of 10 women get no support through the family courts, that the experience risks re-traumatising them and many abusers use the justice system as a form of coercive control. I am one of those women.
I have never willingly chosen to go to court. Writing about it now, I feel triggered by how horrendous each of the half dozen occasions were.
I arrived early, hid in a corner of the open-plan area, trying to shrink into furniture fixed to the floor. Waiting to be called, I’d feel the urge to empty my bowels, as sweat dripped down my back.
I work in communication. But in hearings, I became almost incoherent with stress and fear, as my abuser literally held court.
For years he refused to mediate, broke court orders, frequently failed to provide for our child. Sometimes his behaviour left me no choice but to make a court application for her welfare. When I took him to court, it was my fault. So too when he filed the application. He wielded the threat of court like a stick.
My father accompanied me to most hearings. I could feel his pain as a parent unable to protect his own child. My new husband came once too, but it was stressful for both of them. I welcomed their support, but they couldn’t protect me from my past or from facing that man in the tiny courtroom.
After one hearing, my ex became aggressive. A court attendant hurried me into a waiting room, offered my dad and me an alternative exit. I do not count this as support because what I needed – a legal system that understands abusers use courts to control and retraumatise their ‘victims’ – would have prevented this situation in the first place.
Early on, I spent the equivalent of almost a year’s salary on legal fees, borrowed money from friends and family, accruing debt that took years to repay. He accused me of squandering my child’s future, despite failing to provide for her financially. Not even some of the UK’s best legal minds saw the hold this man had over me.
He represented himself, playing the penniless, persecuted parent in court. A mate of his sat alongside him as a ‘McKenzie Friend’ – a person attending court in support of someone who does not have legal representation. I was intimidated because this was the same person whose home I had fled to years earlier, after my ex-husband had assaulted me.
The judge took pity on my ex, awarded him more contact. He refused to move closer to us. My daughter struggled with the long round trips, so I moved back to the area where her father had once isolated me from friends and family.
Throughout her primary school years, we were in and out of court. The visits would often coincide with something significant in my life: a new job, a new relationship.
My ex tried to hit me where it hurt. Later he refused my request to move with her closer to my family. He accused me of abuse, reported me to the NSPCC, police, her school. They found nothing to support his claims. The judge politely rebuked him for wrongly accusing me of child abuse, but my ex still told me I would lose my daughter, and I was scared to speak out.
By the time she reached adolescence, it was obvious he was gaslighting her. He refused to admit he could no longer provide for her. Her school got involved because they were worried about her welfare.
Terrified of what he might do to her, I gave a statement to the police, detailing his behaviour across the years. I was asked if I wanted to press charges, warned about the challenge of proving coercive control. I chose not to, fearful of his reaction. I was given security alarms for my home, told I would merit a ‘blue light’ response if I called 999. I was allocated an independent domestic violence advocate because the abuse had been so serious, advised the physical violence would have been punishable, but too much time had passed since he shoved me and said nobody would believe me if I reported it.
We went back to court when my ex refused to mediate about my desired move. My independent domestic violence advisor was unable to attend. My ex shared with our daughter my court application in which I accused him of abuse against me and her. He told her I was lying, that I was mentally ill. She was devastated, unsure of who to trust.
A social worker told me just before the hearing date that he had agreed to the move. The judge applauded his gesture, gently rebuked him for breaking another court order.
Days later, my daughter learned her father was moving far away. It was something he had not told the judge.
Recently she asked how her father had been allowed to lie in court. Don’t they make you swear to tell the truth, she said.
If only it was that easy. As long as abusers are able to use the courts to further intimidate those they seek to control, justice will only be on their terms. The legal system needs to wake up to how horrific family court can be for those who suffer coercive control, and needs to recognise the power that some people hold that ends up further hurting those most at risk.