DVCN - Domestic Violence Co-ordinators Network

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4th June 2018

“What about my right not to be abused?” Domestic abuse, human rights and the family court

Women’s Aid and Queen Mary University of London release new report on domestic abuse, human rights and child contact cases in the family courts revealed to coincide with closing of the Domestic Abuse Bill consultation.

Survivors of domestic abuse reveal their experience of systematic gender discrimination within the family courts that is putting children’s safety at risk, according to Women’s Aid and Queen Mary University of London’s new report on child contact cases and domestic abuse in the family courts.

The report, ‘“What about my right not to be abused?” Domestic abuse, human rights and the family courts’, released to coincide with the closing of the government’s consultation on the Domestic Abuse Bill, collected quantitative and qualitative data from 72 women living in England on their experiences of the family courts which confirms and builds on findings from existing research in this area. The report uncovers that there is a prevalence of damaging gendered stereotypes and harmful attitudes towards domestic abuse survivors and mothers within the family courts; this is putting survivors and their children’s safety at risk and preventing them from accessing justice. Women’s Aid calls for the government to commission an independent inquiry into the family courts to tackle this systematic gender discrimination.

‘The judge said: “I see that you’ve been in a previous relationship that was quite abusive.” I thought: ‘you think that I attract abusive men.”
And I just felt so degraded.’
 – Anonymous survivor

‘You have to come across very calm, you can’t show emotion, you can’t get upset, if you get upset, well you’re unstable, and you’re not healthy for the child.’
Anonymous survivor

Survivors reported that they were repeatedly not believed, were blamed for experiencing abuse and seen as unstable by judges, barristers and Cafcass officers. Almost half of survivors (48%) reported that there was no fact-finding into the allegations of domestic abuse in their case. While one survivor reported that her abusive ex-partner was able to cross-examine her about her sexual history during child contact proceedings.

In January 2016, Women’s Aid launched the Child First campaign calling on the family courts and the government to put the safety of children back at the heart of all contact decisions made by the family court judiciary. Since the campaign launched there has been some progress made with the revision of Practice Direction 12J, the guidance given to family court judges in child contact cases where there is an allegation of domestic abuse, and a government commitment to ban the practice of abusers cross-examining victims in the family courts.

Yet the report shows that there continues to be a lack of protections within the family courts for survivors of domestic abuse. One quarter of survivors (24%) surveyed reported that they had been cross-examined by their abusive ex-partner during the court hearings; while three in five survivors (61%) reported that there were no special measures – for example, separate waiting rooms, different entry/exit times, screen or video link – in place in the court despite allegations of domestic abuse in their case. These lack of measures to protect survivors from abuse during the court process harms their ability to give evidence and prevents them from effectively advocating for their children in court.

‘I was advised with particular judges that they didn’t like women in domestic violence cases who chose to have screens and separate entrances
because it gave the wrong impression.’
 – Anonymous survivor

‘It was horrible, it was the worst thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. The cross-examination was just disgusting. The questions were about my sex life, previous boyfriends and who was going in my house. It was ridiculous’ – Anonymous survivor

The report also revealed a clear link between survivors’ experience of domestic abuse, including coercive control and post-separation abuse, and risks to children’s wellbeing and safety. Over two thirds of survivors (69%) reported that their abusive ex-partner had also been emotionally abusive towards their child(ren), while almost two in five survivors (38%) reported that their abusive ex-partner had also been physically abusive towards their child(ren). Yet unsupervised contact with an abusive parent was most likely to be awarded in the cases in our sample. This reinforced findings from a recent report by Cafcass and Women’s Aid which revealed that unsupervised contact was ordered at the final hearing in almost two in five cases where there was an allegation of domestic abuse (39%). In the most extreme cases, contact decisions threatened survivors and their children’s human right to life when contact orders placed them in unsafe proximity to abusive ex-partners or confidential information about their address or location was revealed during the court process. Survivors’ lack of access to a fair hearing is clearly putting children’s wellbeing and safety at risk.

Read the full report here. 

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