The Government has announced victims of domestic abuse will have better protection in an “overhaul of how the family courts deal with the horrific crime.”
The plans come after an expert-led review of the family courts' handling of domestic abuse, which took the views of more than 1,200 organisations and individuals, including parents and children with experience of the family courts.
At present there is a presumption of ‘parental involvement’, i.e. that children should spend time with both parents (equally, where possible), and evidence needs to be provided to depart from this presumption. The concern about this presumption is that it applies to abusers, and also victims (whether children, or adults) have the onus of resisting this presumption.
The panel of experts which included charities, the judiciary, family law practitioners and academia, heard evidence about the potential long-term harm to children as a result of courts ordering prolonged contact with an abusive parent, as well as the need to avoid putting victims through ‘adversarial’ proceedings unnecessarily.
The emphasis needs to be “placed on getting to the root of an issue and ensuring all parties are safe and able to provide evidence on an equal footing”.
The Government’s “sweeping reforms” include:
- Trialling a new approach which could see judges deciding what evidence to investigate, rather than both parties presenting their cases against each other.
- Automatically granting ‘special measures’ in the courtroom for victims of domestic abuse– such as separate waiting rooms, entrances and screens – via a further amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill.
- Reviewing the presumption of ‘parental involvement’ and whether the right balance is struck between the risk of harm to children and victims, with the right of the child to have a relationship with both parents.
- A commitment to changing the provision on ‘barring orders’, which prevent abusers repeatedly dragging ex-partners back to court over child arrangements, but which hitherto have been difficult to obtain (since the effect is to restrict a person’s access to justice).
Justice Minister, Alex Chalk has said:
“Every day the family courts see some of the most vulnerable in society and we have a duty to ensure they are protected and not put in danger.”
“This report lays bare many hard truths about long-standing failings, but we are determined to drive the fundamental change necessary to keep victims and their children safe.”
“But this is not all we’re doing. Our landmark Domestic Abuse Bill will transform society’s response to this destructive crime – protecting victims and pursuing perpetrators more than ever before.”
Key measures in the Domestic Abuse Bill, which is currently at the report stage in the House of Commons include:
- creating a definition of domestic abuse to emphasise that domestic abuse is not just physical violence, but can also be emotional, coercive or controlling, and economic abuse
- establishing a Domestic Abuse Commissioner, to drive the response to domestic abuse.
- introducing new Domestic Abuse Protection Notices and Domestic Abuse Protection Orders to further protect victims and place restrictions on the actions of abusers
- place a duty on local authorities in England to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and their children (including refuges and other safe accommodation)
- prohibit perpetrators of abuse from cross-examining their victims in person in the family courts in England and Wales
- enable offenders to be subject to polygraph testing as a condition of their licence following release from custody
- place the guidance supporting the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (‘Clare’s law’) on a statutory footing.