Yesterday I published my second report on the family justice system The Family Court and domestic abuse: achieving cultural change. My report seeks to accelerate and build on the change being progressed since the Harm Panel Report which was published three years ago, in order to improve the experience of the Family Court for victims and survivors of domestic abuse.
The recommendations can be categorised using three broad headings: transparency; abuse-informed expertise and specialist support; and establishing a genuinely child-centric approach.
The Family Court is a civil court and is very different to the criminal court because it is people taking each other to court, as opposed to someone being put on trial for committing a crime. Hence why they are known as private family law proceedings. In order to protect litigants, the Family Court operates behind closed doors and it is very hard to observe proceedings, unlike in the criminal court. So the court has the power to make huge decisions about families, but there is no transparency about what goes on and it is hard to see with hard data the presence and response to domestic abuse from the Family Court.
The Commissioner is appreciative of the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarland for his commitment to greater insight into the Family Court with his Transparency Project.
To compliment this work, I will be launching a Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism later this year to assist in understanding and clarifying the national picture of domestic abuse engagement within the Family Court. This data, which is desperately wanted and needed, will provide clarity on the extent to which domestic abuse knowledge is applied in the Family Court. This should be delivered alongside my recommendation for a Domestic Abuse Best Practice Lead in each court area to improve court learning and practice in live time, rather than later.
Abuse-informed expertise and specialist support
Abuse-informed expertise and specialist support is vital for a Family Court which fully understands domestic abuse and supports victims and survivors, this includes ensuring all parts of the Family Court System have training informed by specialist domestic services; providing survivors with legal aid; and also providing survivors with specialist court support such as an Independent Domestic Violence Advocate. The need for such knowledge and support is reflected the findings from my national survivor survey published last year, which showed 69 percent of victims and survivors indicating that they wanted legal support or advice for Family Court proceedings compared to 42 percent who wanted access to legal support or advice for criminal court proceedings. As well as in the engagement I have had with victims and survivors who have shared how domestic abuse, which they have experienced, has been poorly engaged with and often minimised.
Abuse-informed expertise alongside specialist support will achieve three things: firstly, it will place the Family Court in the strongest position to safeguard children and adult victims and survivors of domestic abuse by ensuring the best tools to address abuse; secondly, the re-traumatisation from the Family Court will be minimised for those in proceedings and the victims and survivor will have support in order to effectively engage with proceedings; and finally, safer long-terms outcomes will be achieved from effective handling of these cases.
Establishing a genuinely child-centric approach
The report makes an overarching recommendation which underpins the need for establishing a child-centric Family Court.
I believe we should begin by learning from the existing pilot Pathfinder courts which have so far had phenomenal feedback; they have proven themselves to be effective, child-centric and abuse informed.
Right now there are victims of domestic abuse in the Family Court who do not have the benefit of the pathfinder approach, which is when someone alleges domestic abuse, some survivors will have never disclosed domestic abuse before, to put effort and resource in at the start to understand domestic abuse from the start before unpicking any counter allegation.
Their national rollout would put considerable momentum behind each and every one of my recommendations. This would be an efficient and effective way of capitalising on excellent work and existing progress.
My report, at its core, seeks to distinguish abuse within allegations of a parent pathologically manipulating a child to be reluctant, resistant or refusing to have contact with the other parent and with a child being reluctant, resistant or refusing to have contact with a parent, because they are are perpetrator of domestic abuse.
I know that this pathological level of manipulation does happen, and is a severe and serious form of post-separation abuse. Equally, she asserts that it can also be falsely alleged, by a perpetrator as a severe and serious form of post-separation abuse, in order to distract from their abusive behaviour. This can be challenging for the Family Court, particularly in the context of needing an improved understanding of domestic abuse and technical knowledge on how children can be used as a tool to continue abuse.
Within any allegation, there is a need to distinguish the form of abuse. In these instances, I endorse an approach which sees the Family Court pausing and moving such cases to a specific track where abuse-informed and child-centric methodologies, such as taking the context of the child’s age, development, experience of trauma, into account and are applied. This is to ensure that the child is at the heart of the Family Court.
The Family Court cannot allow for itself to be misused as an arena of ongoing post-separation abuse and children must not be allowed to be used as instruments of such coercion.