Major overhaul of family courts to protect victims of domestic abuse
29th June 2020 by Kenneth Clarke
One unsightly by-product of Covid 19 has been the massive spike in reported incidents of domestic abuse.
Whilst mediation has long been able to protect victims from intimidating and controlling behaviour, whether direct or covert, by the use of shuttle sessions (both parties sit in a different room and the mediator is responsible for communicating between them), the courts have been less effective in shielding victims from abusive partners when both have to attend court for hearings.
But that is about to change as a number of significant reforms are being introduced in the upcoming Domestic Abuse Bill, which is currently at the report stage in the House of Commons.
Victims of domestic abuse will have access to separate courtroom entrances and waiting rooms, together with protective screens to shield them from their abuser.
Other measures being considered include preventing perpetrators of abuse from cross-examining their victims in person in the family courts in England and Wales.
These long overdue protective measures follow research by the Victoria Darbyshire BBC radio programme, which found that within five years of a court granting contact, at least four children were killed by a parent with a known history of domestic abuse.
The BBC also unearthed cases where a parent who had convictions for serious domestic abuse (including rape and other violent offences) were granted unsupervised contact to their child.
The Children Act 1989 fostered a culture that was pro-contact, which meant that the family courts focussed on ensuring contact with the absent parent. The research concluded that this led to a “systemic minimisation of allegations of domestic abuse” and this can lead to long-term harm to children who have contact with an abusive parent, as that parent will often use the child as a weapon to continue a vendetta of psychological and emotional abuse against the other parent.
The adversarial system is fertile ground for an abuser, as it often exacerbates the conflict, which in turn traumatises the victims and their children.
Additional measures include giving judges power to make “barring orders” that prevent abusers continually forcing their ex-partners back to court.
Crucially there is to be a review of the presumption of “parental involvement” and the balance between risk of harm to children and victims and the right of the child to have a relationship with both parents.
The disturbing rise in the number of reported domestic abuse cases during the Covid 19 lockdown has highlighted that domestic abuse is a silent predator. It can have lasting and sometimes irreversible effects on both children and the abused parent. Therefore any measures that will help to protect the vulnerable from further harm is to be welcomed.
The message must be clear to all abusers. Your behaviour is not only a criminal offence, at worse it may also lead to the courts denying you contact to your child, or at least greatly reducing the freedom with which you exercise it (supervision at a contact centre being one example).
If you would like to speak to one of our mediators about any of the above information, or find out more information about family mediation, please email us and we will get back to you as soon as possible.