“The family and criminal court system retraumatises victims”, according to a new report

The Domestic Abuse Commissioner is calling for urgent long-term funding and more dedicated specialist court support after a new report revealed that 89 per cent of domestic abuse survivors don’t get any support when they go through the family courts.

The report also found that 71 per cent of domestic abuse survivors don’t get any support in any court at all including magistrates or crown courts.

Nicole Jacobs said it was time that Independent Domestic Abuse Advisors (IDVAs), who support and guide domestic abuse victims through the justice system, were seen as being an integral part of the family courts and criminal justice system.

All survivors going through the justice system should, if they wish, be able to access IDVA support. The government has committed to consult on a statutory duty to provide crucial domestic abuse support services in the community – these services must include the specialist court IDVAs described in today’s report (and sufficient funding must be allocated accordingly).

The report by SafeLives commissioned by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner showed that many survivors currently feel retraumatised by the court process.

One survivor told researchers: “The Family Court process has left me severely traumatised, worse than the DV (domestic violence) itself.  I was belittled, undermined, exposed to my abusive ex repeatedly, my children were not listened to and it felt like father’s rights trumped mine and negated his history of DV.  I’ve never been more frightened and alone in my life.”

Today’s report, Understanding Court Support for Victims of Domestic Abuse, showed that lack of understanding of domestic abuse and the attitudes of court professionals’ was the most common answer given by those going through the family court when asked what had a negative impact on their experience.

Many survivors said that poor safeguarding, special measures or other safety concerns had also had a negative impact. The report said this was exacerbated in the family courts because of poor interaction with CAFCASS (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service).

It also highlighted that in many cases “survivors said they felt perpetrators were using the system for coercive control”.

One in five IDVAs was prevented from supporting their clients in the courts, findings showed. This was partly because perpetrators did not want them to be included or they were prohibited from entering proceedings by court officials including judges.

The report recommended that all courts are ‘trauma-informed’ and cultural change programmes (including training) should be introduced for all professionals involved, to improve understanding of domestic abuse and coercive controlling behaviour throughout the justice system (criminal, family and civil) to mitigate trauma experienced by victims and their children, to ensure the risk posed by offenders is fully recognised and mitigated.

The Domestic Abuse Commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, said: “This report comes at a time when there have been significant falls in prosecutions of domestic abuse in the criminal courts, and serious failings acknowledged by Government around the treatment of survivors and their children in the family courts.

“Survivors going through the courts also continue to be impacted by the delays caused by the Covid pandemic and will be for some years to come. In this most difficult of contexts, the changes we are calling for cannot come fast enough.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the failings of the system to protect victims and hold perpetrators to account and this will continue in the wake of the pandemic unless action is taken. The report found that 67 per cent of domestic abuse services said they had noticed an increase in case length since Covid.

The report described “a criminal and family justice system seemingly in chaos”. Domestic abuse services told SafeLives that Nightingale Courts were not being utilised and expressed concerns that some survivors were directed to courts out of area during lockdown, resulting in long journeys on public transport which increased fear and safety concerns including concerns around Covid.

They also described “breakdowns in communication between professionals resulting in special measures not being applied or in some cases wrong dates for trials being sent to the victim resulting in trials failing. Poor witness care and witness intimidation enabled through the use of Live Links for example perpetrators making gestures to victims.

Liz Thompson, Director of External Relations at SafeLives said: “Over 10 years of evidence has shown the value of IDVAs in supporting survivors to get safe and recover from their trauma. Our latest research for the Domestic Abuse Commissioner has found that sadly a majority of victims aren’t receiving this crucial support in relation to the court system despite the clear benefits for criminal justice outcomes and enhanced safeguarding within the family justice system.

“We wholeheartedly support the Commissioner’s calls for IDVAs to be seen as an integral part of the support victims should be entitled to receive no matter which court they are having to attend.”

The report found that the single most commonly cited intervention that improved survivors’ experience of going through the courts was dedicated court IDVA support, yet there are still very few IDVAs who specialise in the family courts or criminal justice system.

It also found that community IDVAs often don’t have capacity or specialist knowledge to provide support to survivors during court cases especially given backlogs and the length of cases.

Ms Jacobs said: “I am extremely concerned that so few victims who are going through the family courts are getting any support at all. The kind of cases that go through the family courts are often highly emotional and usually linked to child custody cases. This must change as a matter of urgency.

“This is felt especially sharply by the most marginalised victims and survivors, who already face additional barriers within these systems. There is almost no support for Black and Minoritised women, male victims, LGBTQ+ and deaf and disabled victims,” she added.

This month (June) marked the anniversary of the Ministry of Justice Harm Panel Report which assessed risk of harm to children and parents in private law children’s cases. The report found that domestic abuse victims and their children were being failed and were being placed at risk of further harm by the family courts system.

The report recommended root and branch reform of the family courts and said that “As a matter of course, IDVAs, domestic abuse advocates and mental health support workers should be allowed to accompany the party they are supporting into court.”

To mark the anniversary and to take a detailed look at the role of the Domestic Abuse Commissioner in improving the experiences of survivors’ and their children in the family courts, the Commissioner will be hosting a series of roundtables over the next few months with academics, survivors, members of the judiciary, and legal profession. The first event takes place this afternoon.

“My aim is to work together so we can 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,” Ms Jacobs added.

Key findings of those surveyed as part of the report:

  • Almost 90 per cent of domestic abuse victims don’t get any support through the family courts
  • 71 per cent of victims don’t get any support through the family courts or criminal justice system (crown courts or magistrates courts)
  • One in five domestic abuse support workers (Independent domestic violence advisors IDVAs) is blocked from entering the courts
  • The impact of the pandemic will be felt by survivors and services for years to come – 67 per cent of services said they had noticed an increase in case length since Covid and backlogs are running into at least 2022
  • The single most commonly cited intervention that improved survivors’ experience of going through the courts was dedicated court domestic abuse support, yet there are still very few IDVAs who specialise in the family courts or criminal justice system
  1. Report recommendations:

Need for urgent action on court backlogs and increased long-term investment.

Recognising the role of IDVAs as an integral part of court systems

Realising ‘trauma-informed’ courts and cultural change training for all professionals

Better strategic support, coordination and understanding of sexual violence.

About the report:

The Domestic Abuse Commissioner is an independent voice that speaks on behalf of victims and survivors. The Commissioner will use her statutory powers, which are set out in the Domestic Abuse Bill, to raise public awareness and hold both agencies and government to account in tackling domestic abuse.

The Domestic Abuse Commissioner approached Safelives to commission a report which looked at court related domestic abuse support.

SafeLives is a UK-wide charity dedicated to ending domestic abuse. SafeLives works with organisations to transform the response to domestic abuse. Last year nearly 13,500 professionals received training. Over 70,000 adults at risk of serious harm or murder and more than 85,000 children received support through dedicated multi-agency support designed by SafeLives and delivered with partners.

Report methodology:

A mixed methodology approach has been used to gather both qualitative and quantitative data for this report to ensure authentic voice and a representative sample of services were captured.

Please note the initial intention of the report was to also map court support for victims of sexual violence as well as domestic abuse victims, however, due to a low response rate from services and difficulty reaching survivors of sexual violence the report was not able to provide the same insight for sexual violence in this report, although there are many overlapping issues including capacity issues and being excluded from court.

What do IDVAs do?

The typical role of a family court IDVA – supports survivors navigating the family courts by offering practical and emotional support throughout both public and private law proceedings including non-molestation orders, child arrangement orders and local authority cases. They work in partnership with the courts to facilitate pre-hearing visits, explain special measures and keep survivors up to date with proceedings. They will attend solicitor appointments and support applications for legal aid. They will signpost and make referrals when necessary and will play an important part in ensuring the new DA Act (2021) is adhered to in family court regarding vexatious family proceedings and special measures. Family Court IDVAs will risk assess on a continual basis to ensure safety plans are reflective of current risk and protective measures are in place to reduce any increase in risk.

The Government’s Harms Report June 2020 into found that the family courts were putting domestic abuse victims and their children at risk of additional harm and laid out a series of recommendations.

These recommendations included: “As a matter of course, IDVAs, domestic abuse advocates and mental health support workers be allowed to accompany the party they are supporting into court.”

You can find the full Harms Report here:

Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases (publishing.service.gov.uk)