The hour of change is now for the family courts

Tonight’s Dispatches documentary shows horrific footage of children being forcibly removed from their beds by police in the middle of the night taken from one loving parent to one they are frightened of.

Officers make it clear they are just following court orders – the children are screaming and begging not to go.

Torn Apart: Family Courts Uncovered highlights some of the shocking problems that victims and their children face every day because of decisions taken behind closed doors in the family courts.

Decisions that often feel incomprehensible to domestic abuse survivors and can tear families apart with devastating consequences.

This harrowing film makes it powerfully clear that there are serious failings going on in some family courts and the hour for urgent change is now.

These are not isolated example.  I know from the amount of correspondence that I receive about the family courts that so many domestic abuse victims feel failed by the system and retraumatised by the process, as my recent report with SafeLives found.

Survivors talk about perpetrators being able to use the courts to continue the cycle of abuse which was also highlighted in the documentary. 

Securing improvements in the family courts for survivors of domestic abuse and their children is one of my top priorities as the Domestic Abuse Commissioner.

I want to see a family justice system which has a culture of safety and protection from harm, where children’s needs and the impact of domestic abuse are central considerations, and survivors of domestic abuse feel listened to and respected.

At the heart of all changes must lie the safety of children and survivors; an understanding of the harm done to children by domestic abuse; and the need to protect children and survivors from further harm through the family courts. Children are now identified as victims of domestic abuse in their own rights as part of the Domestic Abuse Act.

Last year the Ministry of Justice’s Harm Panel report found that family courts were putting domestic abuse victims and their children at risk of additional harm and made a series of excellent recommendations which must be fully implemented.

But more is needed as a matter of urgency including a national monitoring and reporting mechanism set up within my office (in partnership with the Victims’ Commissioner). We are actively working on this now and hope to agree with government the information that is required and the methods we need to get this right.

I hope that we will report regularly on the family courts’ performance about how victims of domestic abuse and their children are dealt with in private law children’s proceedings.

Other things that my office is focusing on as immediate next steps include:

I want to see all survivors going through the family justice system being able to access specialist court support through IDVAs (Independent Domestic Violence Advocate) with proper funding in place for these specialist support roles.

The family court rules must also be changed to ensure IDVAs and other DA support workers can enter courtrooms with the survivor they are supporting without being blocked by perpetrators.

More specialist training needs to be embedded throughout the family justice system to ensure there is a full understanding of the nature of domestic abuse and its impact on survivors and children.

Another very important barrier for domestic abuse victims is the issue of legal aid and I will be urging the Government to ensure that all domestic abuse survivors have access to non-means-tested legal aid.

These are all changes that can and should happen quickly.

This powerful documentary adds to the growing body of evidence to show how badly domestic abuse survivors and their children are being let down by the family court system and the need for immediate action that meets this challenge

No more families should be torn apart though an archaic and outdated system.

I hope that ministers will take note and act swiftly – the lives of so many parents and children depend upon it.