- In 2020, the Government’s Harm Panel Report uncovered an alarming series of barriers to the Family Court’s ability to protect victims of abuse from future harm.
- Despite encouraging progress, it is clear that three years on we must seize the momentum of this report, to reverse the retraumatising impact on adult and child victims and survivors of domestic abuse.
- New findings from the Domestic Abuse Commissioner have revealed over 80 percent of legal practitioners surveyed felt that the Family Court is likely to retraumatise victims and survivors of domestic abuse.
- This autumn, the Commissioner will launch a pioneering scheme in three courts in England and Wales with unprecedented access to family law proceedings.
- Named the ‘Family Court Reporting and Monitoring Mechanism’, the focus will be to observe and gather information on how domestic abuse cases are managed, with a view to overhaul the way victims and survivors are supported in the Court.
- Alongside the Mechanism, the Commissioner is calling on the Government to fund specialist court support for victims and their children and ensure that legal aid is accessible.
- The Commissioner is calling for the acceleration of the Government’s Pathfinder pilots.
Today the Domestic Abuse Commissioner has released a report highlighting ongoing concerns about the traumatising experience of the Family Court for victims and survivors of domestic abuse.
The report outlines the Commissioner’s plan for wholesale change in the Family Court process.
This comes as new research with legal practitioners found that more than 80 percent of those surveyed felt that the Family Courts were likely to re-traumatise victims and survivors of domestic abuse.
The Commissioner regularly hears from victims and survivors who describe how allegations of domestic abuse are minimised during proceedings, which are often very lengthy and costly, placing their children at serious risk of harm. Many people going through the Court are fearful that their best interests aren’t being considered as their family’s future hangs in the balance.
The report amplifies calls to centre the experiences of children as victims of domestic abuse to ensure that their voices are clearly heard during proceedings The voice of the child has been all but lost in the Court, and the Commissioner hopes that this report will bring it into the forefront of family law proceedings.
The Family Court operates behind a veil of secrecy and compared to the criminal courts, enforces very strict rules that stop proceedings being discussed outside its walls. The report sets out new plans for the Commissioner to launch a pioneering national oversight mechanism which will, for the first time, uncover proceedings; observing and gathering information in relation to cases in the Family Court involving domestic abuse. This will be key to rebuilding public confidence in the system.
Alongside the new mechanism, the Commissioner is calling for a series of critical measures to be implemented at pace by the Government, including funding to ensure victims and survivors can access specialist support and legal aid.
Ms Jacobs said: “I have heard from hundreds of victims and survivors. They tell me how they have been re-traumatised by private family law children proceedings and left fearing for their children’s safety.
“It is imperative that the Family Court embodies a culture of safety and protection from harm, where children’s needs and the impact of domestic abuse are central considerations, and that all victims and survivors of domestic abuse consistently feel listened to and respected. This is currently not the case.
“We have seen significant progress made by the government over the last three years, following the publication of the Harm Panel report, including allowing specialist advocates access to the court to support victims and the establishment of the pilot Pathfinder Courts in North Wales and Dorset to better support child and adult victims and survivors.
“But it’s clear –- listening to the harrowing experiences of victims and survivors – that pace of reform must be accelerated
“That’s why, I am pleased to set out plans for a pioneering monitoring and reporting mechanism to gain a much needed insight into the day-to-day of the Family Court in addressing domestic abuse. Public faith in the Family Court is essential: victims of domestic abuse must feel able to approach the court system with confidence that the safeguarding within the Domestic Abuse Act will be upheld to the highest level.”
The Commissioner is calling for sufficient funding to be allocated for its pilot phase and, subsequently, its national roll out.
Notes to editors
- The report draws from existing research, including analysis of correspondence received by the Commissioner from victims and survivors of domestic abuse; a range of roundtables with practitioners, experts, and adult and child victims and survivors, campaigners, and a survey of solicitors, chartered legal executives, and barristers. Details of the full methodology, analysis and findings can be found in the Accompanying Methodology Report on the Commissioner’s website: https://domesticabusecommissioner.uk/
- In 2020, the Ministry of Justice published report, Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases (the Harm Report), which identified a series of fundamental barriers to the courts’ ability to protect victims of abuse effectively from future harm, and made a range of recommendations to address these barriers. One of the recommendations was for the establishment within the Office of the Domestic Abuse Commissioner of a national monitoring mechanism to maintain oversight of and report regularly on the family courts’ performance in protecting children and adult victims from domestic abuse and other risks of harm in private law children’s proceedings. In November 2021, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and the Victims’ Commissioner published a joint paper, Improving the family court response to domestic abuse, which set out the broad objectives as well as detailed questions and specifications for the mechanism. It is envisaged that mechanism will produce an annual report on the state of play in family courts, based on a combination of national or nationally representative data and ‘deep dives’ into particular issues or areas of concern.
- Since the publication of the Harm Panel report the Commissioner welcomes the implementation of the following recommendations; 1) Pilot Pathfinder Courts in North Wales and Dorset were established to improve information sharing between agencies such as the police, local authorities and the courts; to provide better support and safer outcomes for child and adult victims and survivors; and introduce a problem-solving approach that places the child at the centre of family cases; 2) Restrictions on the use of intimate images in family proceedings were established in the judgment of Re M; 3) The prohibition of cross-examination by a defendant within all family proceedings; 4) The Qualified Legal Representative (QLR) scheme to assist with appointing QLR’s to conduct cross-examination in family proceedings; and 5) Independent Domestic Violence Advocates (IDVAs) and Independent Sexual Violence Advocates (ISVAs) were permitted access to the Family Court.
- The Harm Panel report recommended the establishment of a monitoring mechanism within the office of the Domestic Abuse Commissioner (DAC), in partnership with the Victims’ Commissioner (VC). This mechanism will help address the serious failings identified in the Harm Panel report, making the courts and outcomes safer for children, through:
• improving data and understanding of how private law children cases involving domestic abuse are treated, and
• providing a means for the voices of survivors and children to be heard.
It should be noted that the Commissioner is not permitted to intervene in individual cases.