Improving the Family Court response to domestic abuse

Every day I hear from domestic abuse survivors about their experiences in the family courts. Far too often survivors and their children have been let down and retraumatised through the process and it is one of my utmost priorities to change this.

The stakes in these cases could not be higher.  The family justice system only steps in to intervene when child contact is contested between parents. Often domestic abuse is central in many of these cases – evidence suggests that over 60% of cases relate to domestic abuse. Emotions are raw and many survivors fear for the safety of their children.

The problems I hear about in the family courts are well-known and were backed up in the Government’s Harm Panel report published in in 2020. This report found that root and branch reform was required, and it outlined a series of urgent changes to improve the situation for domestic abuse survivors and their children. Those recommendations are desperately needed now, and I have been working with the Government to implement them as a priority.

One of the recommendations was the establishment of a monitoring mechanism within the office of the Domestic Abuse Commissioner (DAC), in partnership with the Victims’ Commissioner (VC).

Today, we are publishing our proposals for what this monitoring mechanism should look like and how it can help bring real change for domestic abuse victims and their children.

Today’s proposals are being put forward after extensive engagement with lawyers, judges, Ministry of Justice, Cafcass, Cafcass Cymru, HMCTS, domestic abuse service organisations, children’s organisations – and – most importantly – with survivors and young people, and we are grateful to everyone who has shared their insights with us.  The amount of support and agreement we have had has been momentous.

The idea is that the mechanism will help to address the serious failings identified in the Harm Panel report making the courts and outcomes safer for children. It will do this by 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. Problems will be identified more quickly, and then hopefully – with family justice partners – addressed.

The mechanism will improve both transparency and accountability within the family courts – it will aim to get to the heart of what is going on in the current system when it comes to domestic abuse.  And importantly, it will centre the voices of survivors and children.

The mechanism will not impinge on the important principle of judicial independence – the Commissioners will not be able to review or overturn individual decisions. But through gathering data on key questions that need answers – such as the extent to which courts are complying with important guidance on how to treat survivors and their cases – accountability will be improved.

Currently, very little data on domestic abuse-related cases is gathered by the family court – so it’s hard to get a full picture of what survivors are facing across the country, and it’s difficult to monitor the impact of any reforms.

Our monitoring work will change this. We want to develop an evidence base that will allow all relevant agencies within the family justice system to implement the changes needed to ensure a safe, risk-focused system for survivors and children. And, ultimately, we will develop a national picture to help improve consistency – across different court areas in England and Wales, and across different levels of courts, from magistrates to the High Court.

We can’t do this alone of course. Ultimately, change will be dependent on all professionals and agencies within the family justice system taking action in light of the findings and recommendations from the mechanism.

We know that they are committed to change, and we look forward to working together to achieve our vision of a just family justice system. This should be a system where children’s needs and the impact of domestic abuse are central considerations; where survivors feel able to raise domestic abuse; and where children and survivors of domestic abuse feel listened to and respected.

The next stage will be to prepare a full design for the pilot phase of the mechanism. We are grateful to the Ministry of Justice, Cafcass, Cafcass Cymru, and HMCTS and the judiciary all of whom have offered to work with us in establishing how we get to the data required for the mechanism. We anticipate the design will be completed early in 2022, and the pilot phase of the mechanism will commence in late Spring 2022.

It feels like the momentum is here now for real change in the family courts and I look forward to building on that over the next few months. We can, and we must, improve the experience for domestic abuse victims and their children.

Please read my report here.