Women’s Aid comment on family courts after BBC Investigation
Lucy Hadley, Head of Policy at Women’s Aid, comments:
“The family court is the number one issue survivors raise with us – and has been for many years. Women’s Aid began campaigning on the family courts in 2004, raising awareness of the dangerous consequences of unsafe child contact decisions – which in the most extreme cases has led to perpetrators harming and killing children.
“For decades, we have called for the family courts to be made safer for survivors and their children, who are often faced with disbelief and retraumatisation when they raise domestic abuse. Survivors are left to fight for their children’s safety in long, costly and complex court proceedings, often without support or access to legal representation.
“In 2020, the Government set up an expert panel (the ‘Harm Panel’), which Women’s Aid sat on, to look at how effectively the family courts respond to domestic abuse. The panel found numerous failings – like the pro-contact culture which privileges the rights of the non-resident parent over the rights of the child and the resource constraints which mean that domestic abuse allegations are not always investigated properly.
“The Government accepted this landmark report, which set out comprehensively what needed to change to make the family courts safe. Yet three years on, survivors are still experiencing discrimination, trauma and disbelief in the family courts and their children are put at risk by contact decisions which do not prioritise their wishes and their safety. In particular, we see women continuing to be accused of “parental alienation” – a concept which has no legal or scientific basis – when they raise valid concerns around domestic abuse and child safety.
“Some positive actions have been taken – like the ban on perpetrators directly cross-examining survivors in the Domestic Abuse Act – but the culture of disbelief and minimisation of domestic abuse continues to cause serious harm. Despite an estimated 60% of cases in the family courts involving domestic abuse, court professionals do not have a consistent understanding of abuse or its impacts on children – who, according to law, should be recognised in law as victims of domestic abuse. Our research has shown the long term and devastating impacts that the family court process can have on women and children – including significant health impacts, financial strain and negative impacts on their children’s lives.
“System-wide reform is urgently needed to ensure that the family courts put children first – as they are supposed to. Women’s Aid Patron Melanie Brown MBE has recently called on decisionmakers to prioritise family justice reform in their manifestos, sending an open letter to the major political parties which was signed by almost 3000 people. She urged parties to ‘listen to the voices of survivors whose abuse is being made worse by the current system’, saying that ‘if we get this right, we can save lives’. Women’s Aid is calling on all political parties to prioritise the urgent reforms needed to the family court response to women and children experiencing domestic abuse.”