Marking the anniversary of the Ministry of Justice expert panel
On 21st June 2021 over 300 survivors, family court professionals, domestic abuse charities, lawyers and judges attended a Women’s Aid event to mark the anniversary of the Ministry of Justice expert panel on assessing risk of harm to children and parents in private law children’s cases published its report – ‘Harm Panel’ report.
Following significant concerns about the treatment of women and children in the family justice system, and the safety of child contact arrangements with perpetrators, the report had delivered a series of recommendations on reforming the family court response to domestic abuse in 2020. At the event, survivors and experts discussed the changes made since the report’s publication, and highlighted serious concerns that a cultural change in the family court response to domestic abuse had not been delivered.
Survivors spoke powerfully about what a year in the family courts meant for them, and the harm, pain and trauma they and their children had experienced at the hands of abusers who use the family courts as a vehicle for ongoing abuse after separation. This included unsafe child contact arrangements, women and children subject to ongoing abuse, stalking and harassment within family court proceedings, and women reporting severe concerns with understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse and coercive control from judges, magistrates and other family court professionals. The Ministry of Justice Minister responsible for the family courts, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar QC, was in attendance to hear these testimonies and set out the government’s priorities for reform.
This was followed by family court and domestic abuse experts, including the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, a senior family court judge, barrister and academic. The panel reflected on the changes they’d seen to the family courts since the report’s publication, over and what further action was needed to improve safety for women and children experiencing domestic abuse. Although it was recognised that the Domestic Abuse Act had delivered a guarantee of access to special protection measures and a ban on abusers from cross-examining survivors in the family courts, there remained outstanding concerns about judges’ training and understanding on domestic abuse, child contact decisions and the inequalities facing Black and minoritised women within the family justice system.
Farah Nazeer chief executive at Women’s Aid said:
“Since I’ve joined Women’s Aid I’ve lost count of the number of women who’ve talked to me about the injustice and harm they and their children have experienced within the family courts. At today’s event we heard the desperate experiences that survivors of domestic abuse are facing within the family justice system – with perpetrators of domestic abuse weaponising child contact arrangements to further abuse women and children, and unsafe child contact decisions leading to serious harm. We know that the implementation of the harm panel report could deliver real change, and we won’t stop fighting for it to be delivered in full. In particular, we urgently need reform to the presumption of parental involvement in the family courts, which is leading to a deadly ‘contact at all costs’ approach in cases of domestic abuse. We cannot wait any longer to keep children safe.”
The Domestic Abuse Commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, said:
“We know that going through the family courts is often an extremely difficult and challenging process for survivors of domestic abuse. Problems in the family court are the single most common issue that survivors contact me about, and change is very overdue.
“I want to see a family justice system which has a culture of safety and protection from harm, where children’s needs and the impact of domestic abuse are central considerations, and survivors of domestic abuse feel listened to and respected.
“I am encouraged by the government’s commitment to implement the Harm Panel report’s recommendations – and the Domestic Abuse Act brought in some positive changes. But change for survivors is needed faster and I would like to see more recommendations from the Harm Panel report being implemented as a matter of urgency.”
Women’s Aid survivor ambassador, Claire Throssell, said:
“This review was an important step forward in recognising the change that’s desperately needed to keep children safe in the family justice system. But progress remains far too slow. Whilst we’ve seen some improvements to women’s safety in the family courts through the Domestic Abuse Act, Parliament missed a vital opportunity to reform the deadly culture of ‘contact at all costs’ which is ultimately what led to Jack and Paul’s voices being ignored and their lives taken.
“It was amazing that over 300 people, including family court judges, attended the event as it shows that people are finally starting to listen. But we are talking were about people’s lives and shattered families and we now need urgent action – not just words. Lives are still being taken by perpetrators because of the unsafe child contact system and the family courts. Perpetrators do this because they can, and this will continue unless there’s a clear message across the country that the family courts will no longer let them.”