A survivor urges the Family Court to consider how they address coercive control within the family justice system

Regina* wanted to share her experience to help change the way that domestic abuse is dealt with in the Family Court. This is her story, in her own words.

I’m a mother, who after years of suffering coercive control from my children’s father and after observing the negative effect that it was having on my children, made a decision to reduce the children’s contact with their father. To safeguard them.

No judgement in this case has been made yet. But I am using my new-found and hard-fought voice, to express how that day in February felt and what my experience of it was as a survivor of psychological and emotional domestic abuse.

I was left confused, saddened, and hopeless after that day in February because of the way that I was treated during our final hearing. The barrister for my children’s father was aggressive, rude, she defamed me, she shamed me, she attempted to assassinate my character, she used gaslighting to re-write the history that I have lived through, she dismissed what I was saying, and she labelled me controlling and that I was weaponizing our children.

Due to the formality of these proceedings there was nothing I could do to protect myself from her aggressive and accusatory communication style, other than to answer the questions that she posed in as calm a manner as I could muster. On occasion when I did answer the questions that she posed to me, I was told in her view that my response was ‘inflammatory’ or inappropriate. I found this incredibly difficult, holding it together – just. I did break at one point, sharing that her communication style was leading me to feel stressed. I am thankful that a pause in proceedings helped me to compose myself. When we re-convened, I continued to sit through her aggressive, shaming and gaslighting line of questioning. I had no option not to.

On that day, I may have looked calm, collected, articulate maybe, if a little rushed and stressed at times. I did my best to answer every question despite the pain I was experiencing. But that night and the next day the pressure of holding it together had become too much.

After the hearing I experienced dissociation. My brain and body tried to disconnect themselves to prevent me from feeling the pain of the trauma. That night I went to bed feeling numb. And the next day I felt despair, hopelessness, isolation, and pain. The questions replayed over and over again in my brain. My inner self started to believe the aggressive/accusatory remarks that the barrister made to me that day.

I lay on my friend’s floor and cried desperate tears. All she could do was to hug me to try and take away some of my despair. Since then, I have spent a lot of time in therapy sessions. Trying to make sense of what happened and process my re-traumatisation as a survivor of domestic abuse.

Being subjected to the type of communication that the barrister used towards me that day is not ok. The accusatory, dismissive, aggressive and gaslighting style of questioning that they used is what I have experienced from my children’s father for years. It is abusive within a relationship and it is abusive within the legal system.

I am grateful for the preparation I did prior to that hearing. All the reading I did before hand, the support sites that I visited all helped me to prepare for cross examination and how I was likely to experience these types of behaviours. I was informed that the behaviour of the client is usually perpetuated through the barrister.

After the hearing my legal team were shocked at how the barrister treated me and the communication style that she used. They apologised to me, saying they had no idea that my cross examination would be like that. The only response I could muster was – “it’s ok, I knew it would be”, because sadly I did.

A lot of survivors of domestic abuse don’t come forward, or don’t challenge their abuse for this exact reason. They don’t stand up for themselves or speak their truth because the abuse worsens within the framework of the legal system. The court process perpetuates the abuse, and the system allows it to happen. I may not have believed this reality six months ago, but my experience is sadly so similar to countless other survivors.  

I want those in the justice system to encourage respectful and dignified communication. I understand that barristers need to try and ‘win’ cases and I fully support this, but is it too much to ask that this is conducted in a respectful and dignified way? Aggression, shaming, defamation has no place in the court room.

It’s too late for me in my case now to change anything. But as a woman and a mother who is trying to uphold her own boundaries, honour her self-respect and stand up for herself, I urge family court judges to think about my story. In my job I work with many clients who suffer domestic abuse, who I signpost on to support services. But I cannot say with authenticity that I would recommend/encourage other survivors to approach the legal system for support in the way it currently is.

*Please note that the survivor’s name has been changed.

If you need help or advice on domestic abuse, you can get in touch with the Free 24/7 National Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0808 2000 247 – or contact any of the specialist domestic abuse organisations and helplines listed on our Resources page.