Cross-Party Group calls for end to cross-examination of survivors of domestic abuse by their abusers in the family courts

20th April 2016

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Domestic Violence today launches its report highlighting the urgent need for an end to cross-examination of survivors of domestic abuse by their abuser in the family court.

The report is the result of a Parliamentary Hearing in January about the treatment of cases involving domestic abuse in the family courts. The report is supported by Jess Phillips MP and Maria Miller MP, who are together launching a joint call to action on the issue. A survivor of domestic abuse from the Women’s Aid Survivors Panel will be speaking about her experiences of the family courts at a Parliamentary event to launch the report.

The APPG launched the inquiry after becoming increasingly concerned about the safety of women and child survivors of domestic abuse within the family courts. The Child First campaign by Women’s Aid, which prompted the Hearing, calls for children’s safety to be at the heart of all decisions made in the family courts, and for survivors of domestic abuse to have access to protection measures when on the family court estate. This includes an end to cross-examination of a survivor by their abuser. The APPG has identified seven key recommendations from the report.

Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said:

“In a criminal court, a burglar would not be allowed to question the person they were accused of robbing – so why are survivors of domestic abuse not given this basic level of protection in the family courts? Survivors frequently report to Women’s Aid that cross-examination by their perpetrator is an extremely stressful experience that contributes to the process of damaging their wellbeing and even putting children’s lives at risk. This is because in most cases, the survivor is the resident parent, and the trauma of cross-examination by their abuser makes it extremely difficult for them to advocate effectively for the safety of their child. In the very worst cases, children have been killed as a result of unsafe contact decisions made the family courts – and the cross-examination of a survivor by an abuser contributes to this.”

Jess Phillips MP, Chair of the APPG on Domestic Violence, said:

“The family courts should be a safe place for all who go through them. As the report shows, they are routinely being used for perpetrators to continue their campaign of abuse – and this can ultimately put children in very unsafe situations. The Government must address this as a matter of urgency.”

Gavin Newlands MP said:

“This excellent APPG report is a hugely important piece of work. The government must make robust changes to the family court judiciary in accordance with the recommendations of the report. It is vital that women and children are protected – not harmed – by the family court process.”

The Seven Key Recommendations and Calls to Action

1. The Ministry of Justice, and the President of the Family Division must clarify that there must not be an assumption of shared parenting in child contact cases where domestic abuse is a feature, and child contact should be decided based on an informed judgement of what’s in the best interests of child.
2. The Government must put an immediate end to survivors of domestic abuse being cross-examined by, or having to cross-examine, their abusers in the family court.
3. The Ministry of Justice must urgently set up an independent, national oversight group overseeing and advising upon the implementation of Practice Direction12J – Child Arrangements and Contact Order: Domestic Violence and Harm.
4. The Ministry of Justice and President of Family Division must ensure that special measures, such as dedicated safe waiting rooms for vulnerable witnesses and separate entrance and exit times, are available throughout family court proceedings and any subsequent child contact, to ensure the safety and well-being of both vulnerable women and children.
5. The Ministry of Justice, President of the Family Division and Cafcass must ensure Judges and court staff in the family court, Cafcass officers and other frontline staff in other related agencies receive specialist face to face training on all aspects of domestic violence, particularly coercive and controlling behaviour, the frequency and nature of post-separation abuse, and the impact of domestic abuse on children, on parenting and on the mother-child relationship.
6. The Ministry of Justice, President of the Family Division and Cafcass must ensure expert safety and risk assessments in child contact cases are carried out where there is an abusive parent involved and they must be conducted by a dedicated domestic abuse practitioner who works for an agency accredited to nationally recognised standards for responding to domestic abuse.
7. The President of the Family Division must ensure family court judges never order child contact in support contact centres where a risk assessment has found that the abusive parent still poses a risk to the child or non-abusive parent.

Read and download the report

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