From the frontline: a first hand account from an IDVA working in the family courts

“I have worked in the domestic abuse sector for over 20 years and I’ve been working in the family courts for the last five. This has been the most challenging job that I have ever done but definitely the most fulfilling. I know that we are really making a big difference and the feedback from those I have supported fully supports this.

Going through the family courts for domestic abuse survivors can be a deeply traumatising and daunting experience.

Over the last five years I have supported scores of survivors through the family courts who have totally frozen, been utterly overwhelmed or had anxiety attacks before the proceedings have even started. I have supported several women who have been so frightened by the whole experience, and being in close proximity to their abuser, that they have been physically sick whilst at court.

Even imagining having to hand your children over to a previously violent and abusive perpetrator is unthinkably awful – but this is the prospect that survivors are faced with every day when they go to the Family Court.

And shockingly, perpetrators of abuse get to decide whether or not their victim can have support from frontline workers like me in the courtroom.

It’s one of the big barriers that we face – we have to make an application for an Independent Domestic Violence Adviser to accompany a survivor into the family court. When you make the application, you have to ask the perpetrator if they will give permission.

As a result, you end up in a position when a potentially controlling/abusive perpetrator will get to decide whether the survivor gets any support. It is extremely difficult to comprehend how this is allowed to happen, and this really needs to change.

The Domestic Abuse Commissioner/SafeLives report, which came out yesterday (June 30th), found that one in five IDVAS were prohibited from supporting their clients in court.

Most survivors, I would say, are absolutely terrified of the whole process. Giving evidence in court is frightening anyway – I have known experienced police officers who really don’t like doing it. But my clients are usually there to discuss child contact and the safety of their child, and in most cases, they are dealing with an ex-partner who has been abusive over a period of many years. It makes it a terrifying and very draining experience for the victim when so much is at stake for them and their children.

Dedicated family court Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (IDVAS) are essential because we understand the courts, we build up relationships with professionals who work in the courts and we are focused on supporting clients through the whole family court process. 

My job is to make those people feel safe and confident, to make it not so unbearable. I guide them through the process – to keep them as calm as possible; make sure they are prepared for what will happen inside the court and to help them communicate with their solicitor (when they may feel so scared they almost go to pieces) so that the legal professional knows everything they need to. Very often my clients are so overwhelmed they can’t process what is happening. How are you supposed to function under those extreme circumstances? It really is like a minefield. The impact on victims’ mental health can often be traumatising.

My role is also to keep these survivors physically safe by constantly risk assessing: to ensure that they can get into the family court safely without bumping into the perpetrator; to know where they are going and crucially to make sure that they are able to get home safely.

These cases can go on for significant amounts of time. I have had numerous clients who have been going through the family courts for years because the ex-partners keep putting in application after application, sometimes for multiple types of court proceedings. I welcome the fact that the new Domestic Abuse Act raises the issue about s.91. (14) orders which prevent people from making further applications. I feel that these should be considered more to protect survivors from perpetrators who sometimes use the court process to control them.  Having me there to explain all the different proceedings and processes made a huge difference because I was consistent. Barristers might change on the day, but I was there to provide continuity and I know that helped a lot.

Other IDVAs and support workers have a crucial role to play to support victims/survivors but they are often very stretched, juggling numerous clients and don’t have the capacity to offer this support nor do they have the same expert specialist family court knowledge.

There is still a long way to go when it comes to supporting domestic abuse survivors through the family courts. We need to see far more dedicated IDVAs; every IDVA should be given automatic entry to the family courts if the survivor wants that and each court should be assessed to ensure that it really can provide special measures to keep survivors safe.

The SafeLives and DA Commissioner’s report shows how important these changes are. Every quote from a survivor rings true and we must have more support in place through the court system.

These changes would stop the experience being quite so terrifying for victims and may well lead to far better outcomes for them and their children. Change can’t come soon enough.”

Thanks very much to the Independent Domestic Violence Advisor (IDVA) who works in the family courts in Nottinghamshire for this first hand account.