Domestic abuse victims will access court through a separate entrance so they do not have to cross paths with their alleged abuser under family court reforms announced by the government.
The Ministry of Justice pledged a 'major overhaul' of family courts after publishing the findings of an expert-led review on the risk of harm to children and parents in private law children cases. Justice minister Alex Chalk said the 216-page final report ‘lays bare many hard truths about long-standing failings’.
The review panel, which included senior members of the judiciary, academics and representatives for the Association of Lawyers for Children, received more than 1,200 responses to a call for evidence.
The report states that many mothers were worried about being confronted by their abuser at court when they were obliged to be in the same building and enter or exit at similar times. One mother’s lawyer was physically attacked by the father at court. The attack was witnessed by the court security guards but the judge was reported to have set it aside.
Parents told the panel that they found the experience of reliving their abuse in court distressing, dehumanising and humiliating. ‘Many said that the responses of judges and magistrates to their allegations of abuse, and to their distress at court, left them feeling belittled, berated and demeaned. There were reports of confidential information being disclosed, for example information about sexual assault counselling, which in the criminal setting would be prohibited under rules of evidence.’
Practitioners said victims were made to feel like a nuisance for requesting special measures. Fathers told the panel that they could not always afford legal representation and felt compelled to conduct the case themselves.
The report says the adversarial system rests on an assumption of equality of arms. ‘The reality in private law children proceedings is that many parties are either unequally armed (one party is legally represented and the other is not) or unequally unarmed (both lack legal representation so power, intimidation and control in the relationship is not mitigated).’
The family court’s ‘pro-contact culture’ results in orders which put children and protective parents at risk of often severe harm.
As well as separate court entrances, the ministry says victims will be given separate waiting rooms and protective screens to shield them from their alleged abuser in court. Judges will more easily be able to issue barring orders preventing abusive ex-partners from repeatedly dragging their victims back to court. A domestic abuse court pilot will consider family and criminal matters in parallel. The presumption of ‘parental involvement’ encouraging a child’s relationship with both parents will be reviewed.
The Domestic Abuse Bill, currently making its way through parliament, will end the cross-examination of domestic abuse victims by their alleged perpetrators.