In 2020, the Ministry of Justice’s Harm Panel produced a landmark report that raised serious concerns about how the Family Court was handling allegations of domestic abuse in private law children’s proceedings. The report concluded that there is a huge need for ongoing monitoring in the Family Court so survivors of domestic abuse and their children are protected from harm.
In response to this recommendation, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s Office has developed a pilot that aims to gain insight on how domestic abuse is understood in the Family Court. The pilot, called the Family Court Review and Reporting Mechanism (FCRRM), will provide information that has, until now, never been collected.
Child arrangement proceedings refer to cases between private individuals, typically separating or separated parents with children. In these cases, the court makes decisions about aspects of a child’s upbringing, such as how much time they will spend with each parent, where they should live, and the school they should attend.
Studies have estimated that domestic abuse is highly prevalent within private law children cases. A small-scale study by Cafcass and Women’s Aid Federation England in 2016 suggested that allegations of domestic abuse are present in up to 62% of such cases, meaning that there could be up to an estimated 32,400 private law children cases involving domestic abuse every year.
Data gathered from victims, survivors, and stakeholders as part of the 2020 Harm Panel Report suggested the Family Court consistently handles allegations of domestic abuse poorly. The report found that the court’s response to domestic abuse was hampered by a range of factors, including:
- courts being inadequately resourced;
- a pro-contact culture, where domestic abuse was often minimised or dismissed due to placing undue priority on children having contact with the non-resident parent
- siloed working and poor communication between key agencies;
- an adversarial system in which parents were often pitted against each other in proceedings.
The report also found that victims and survivors often feel disbelieved by professionals and reported being re-traumatised as a result of the proceedings. Correspondence received by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner from victims and survivors corroborates these themes.
Despite the poor handling of domestic abuse by the Family Court being raised repeatedly, there is currently a lack of clear evidence detailing the scale of the issue. No data on the Family Court’s handling of domestic abuse is gathered routinely.
Furthermore, journalists and researchers have limited access to the courts and are prohibited from reporting on proceedings they observe. This is to protect the privacy of children involved in proceedings.
However, there is currently a drive towards improving the transparency of the family court through the ‘Reporting Pilot’ project across three courts. Journalists are allowed to report on Family Court proceedings at the pilot sites, providing all individuals involved in cases are thoroughly anonymised. While this pilot will begin to give valuable insight into the workings of the Family Court, it is unlikely to produce a clear evidence base.
In response to this, the FCRRM will seek to understand how domestic abuse allegations are currently responded to in the Family Court and hopes to better understand the scale of domestic abuse in proceedings.
The pilot phase of the FCRRM will involve closed case file reviews and court room observations in three Family Court sites in England and Wales.
These findings, alongside an understanding of the data that key agencies such as HMCTS and CAFCASS are currently collecting, will be analysed by researchers and used to design a Family Court framework. This framework can then be used going forward as we continue to explore the Family Court’s response to domestic abuse and ensure that the whole family justice system has a culture of safety and protection from harm.
Responsibility for regular reporting will sit within the Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s Office. The pilot phase of FCRRM will commence early in the new year and run until Autumn 2024. After this, FCRRM will be established and rolled out nationally.