The Guardian published an article on 15th September entitled, ‘MPs call for end to abusive men using courts against families,’ by Sandra Laville. The suggestion within the article that MPs are calling on the government to carry out a review of family courts to stop them being used as a manipulative tool by abusive parents to further exert power and control over their ex partners and to end the revictimisation of both the ex-partner and children. Laville writes,
‘the courts needed to ensure there was safe child contact, not contact at any cost.’
I’ve accompanied women to court and have heard accounts from our women here in North Warwickshire of the trauma of having to face an abusive man after effecting a safe separation. I know of their experience of feeling revictimised when men either represent themselves in court, or, have hostile legal support used to cause further harm to the woman trying to keep herself and her children safe from his behaviour. There are occasions where the woman has had to sit in the same waiting area as her abuser and his sneering entourage, occasions where she has had to answer his questions without being able to access her own legal advisor due to legal aid restrictions, and for him and his solicitor to present their version of events as non abusive, reasonable and fair, rather than to present the reality of a current and past history of manipulation, control, dishonesty and most importantly, his potential to cause high risk, long term and imminent harm. Shaking with fear, feeling totally traumatised, unable to articulate a response and to represent the best interests of her children, this is unacceptable and unsafe for our women and children.
Courts do make decisions for abusive partners to have indirect contact with children, sometimes without considering the full history of harm perpetrated against them, without appropriate consideration of the psychological damage and the potential to perpetrate further fear, harm and long term damage to children and mother in sending correspondence. From our examples, we know that Courts are making this decision prior to proper and full investigations by CAFCASS, prior to analysis of the issues leading to non contact, and prior to allowing a full risk assessment to be made. Legal teams appear on occasion to promote the abusers account that the mother is over reacting, is misunderstanding his withdrawal of maintenance, or is trying to get back at him in his new life and of being petty. The Guardian article cited examples where men had murdered their children after using the family court to access their children, where men had misrepresented themselves as ‘positive fathers’ and had persuaded a court to allow access.
This whole issue must be examined as a priority, at the very least special protection measures should be introduced if requested:
- to enable women and witnesses to access distinct waiting areas, to not have to face their abuser who has shattered their lives
- to ensure that professionals with appropriate credentials are employed in identifying the range of abuses and the level of risk, ideally by way of expert domestic risk assessment (via highly trained experts such as the DViP Risk Assessment team). Social Workers and CAFCASS do not necessarily have the specific expertise in these areas and might appreciate the report of an expert in the field of domestic abuse risk assessment
- to ensure that women have access to high quality and free legal assistance to represent themselves and their children
- To enable women and children to give evidence or to respond to the court via protective measures, including where requested, by video link from a different court location
MP Angela Smith was interviewed in the Guardian article about the all party parliamentary group’s report on domestic abuse, contact arrangements with children and the family court. She advised on the importance of ensuring that family courts implement ‘Practice Guidance 12 J,’ instructing judges to place the safety of children and their residential parent before the access rights of an abusive and potentially lethally violent parent. Cohort 4 would endorse this view; we must act immediately to reduce the number of women and children killed by abusive ex partners and must seek to reduce the misuse of the court system to perpetrate further abuse. Coercion and control does not end when a relationship ends, we must not allow the family courts to be used as a tool to continue abuse.
Beverley Gilbert, Cohort 4 Woman