The family courts are putting the safety of children at risk by failing to deal effectively with domestic abuse, a report says.
The domestic abuse commissioner for England and Wales, Nicole Jacobs, calls in the report for urgent reforms to a family justice system that she says retraumatises victims, minimises abuse and fails to hear the voice of the child.
Jacobs is calling on the government to abolish means testing for legal aid for all victims of domestic abuse and to provide funding so that every survivor has a specialist domestic abuse support worker.
She said: “I have heard from hundreds of victims of and survivors. They tell me how they have been retraumatised by private family law children proceedings and left fearing for their children’s safety.”
A survey of 138 legal practitioners found 80% felt that the family courts were likely to retraumatise those who had experienced domestic abuse.
As well as surveys with barristers and solicitors, the report draws from correspondence received by the commissioner as well as interviews and roundtables with those who have had experience of the family courts and been subjected to domestic abuse.
The findings highlight concerns about unsafe contact orders in private law children’s proceedings, in particular when allegations of “parental alienation” are made.
It says claims of parental alienation – a term used to describe the unwarranted rejection of a parent by a child because of manipulation by the other parent – as a counter-allegation to claims of domestic abuse are having a “chilling effect” on the ability of parents to disclose abuse in order to ensure safe contact arrangements for their children.
Jacobs said there was a feeling among victims and survivors of abuse that these counter-allegations were taken more seriously than allegations of domestic abuse.
She told the Guardian: “We tend to see counter-allegations weighted and explored in parallel. And what we really want to see is a child-centred approach and a full understanding of domestic abuse before we even consider the concept of alienation.”
The commissioner said the courts should be exploring in greater depth the reasons why children may be resistant to or refusing contact. “We should be looking through their eyes first, whereas parental alienation directs you to an adult in terms of an explanation but that may not be the reason,” she said.
She did not think the term “parental alienation” was needed, but added: “That is not to say I don’t think the courts shouldn’t explore when a child is being used. We’ve known that turning family including children against a victim of abuse is a tool used by some perpetrators as a pattern of abuse.”
The government’s 2020 Harm panel report also highlighted failures in the system. While some reforms are under way, including a pilot in north Wales and Dorset that places the child at the centre of proceedings and encourages greater information sharing between agencies, Jacobs said progress needed to be urgently accelerated.
Plans recommended by the Harm panel included a new monitoring initiative to be launched in three courts in England and Wales from later this year. Funding has been secured for the commissioner’s office to run the project, which will involve scoping out what data should be collected by the family courts on a national level.