Family Courts: not fit for purpose

Today is the International Day of Families, marking an opportunity to promote awareness of issues relating to families and to increase knowledge of the social, economic and political processes affecting them. One such issue is the Family Courts system in England & Wales and we support a call for an independent inquiry to investigate its procedures and policies.

The women and children we support at Solace are survivors of abuse who often have to navigate the Family Courts system in order to settle child contact agreements. While it is important that due consideration is given to these matters, in cases of abuse there is significant oversight over the risk and trauma Family Court proceedings can instigate. Here are the reasons why:

•    Survivors often have to face the person who abused them in court without representation because of the huge difficulty in getting legal aid. This is often because the means test to qualify for legal aid includes the equity in a disputed property/divorce settlement. When you do not have legal representation you are at a distinct disadvantage to defend yourself and navigate the intricacies of court proceedings.

•    Perpetrators of domestic abuse are permitted to repeatedly bring the mother back into court in child contact disputes which can cause disruption, intimidation and distress.

•    Survivors often have to give evidence in both the criminal court and family court, asking them to speak about their trauma in great detail to yet another room of strangers.

•    There is a presumption that contact with the abusive father is always in the best interest of the child and;

•    That it is the mother’s responsibility alone to keep the child safe.

Solace supports the change to the Children’s Act 1989 to modify contact conditions in cases where there is a proven history of domestic abuse.  Assumed contact can be very difficult for both the mother who may have experienced the abuse and the child who may have witnessed the abuse.

“The courts often too quickly assume the mother is creating objections to contact because of her own personal reasons rather than a genuine fear for herself and/or her child”

In some cases it can be comforting for a child to have contact with both parents where appropriate, however there are a number of different ways of organising this  including letterbox contact which minimizes risk to both mother and child.  The family courts too often assume that contact centres are best – but full assessments are not then made when direct contact starts. An in-depth assessment must take place to understand what is in the best interest of the child and the caretaking parent who will bear the responsibility of having to manage the logistics of that contact.

Solace also supports enshrining in law Practice Direction 12J, to make it a legal requirement of the court to hold a fact-finding hearing whenever there are allegations of domestic abuse where the perpetrator denies the domestic abuse allegations.

Family structures are often where abuse is carried out and it is therefore vital that we have a justice system that is trained to understand the intricacies of all types of abuse and the trauma and risk it leaves behind. If we are truly to protect both survivors and their children we must shine a light on these current issues and call for investigation and reform.