MPs call for inquiry into how family courts treat rape and abuse survivors

More than 120 MPs have called for the family courts to be opened up to greater scrutiny and for those who father children through rape to be denied parental rights.

In a letter to the justice secretary, David Gauke, the MPs are requesting an independent inquiry into the way the family courts in England and Wales treat survivors of rape and domestic abuse and their children.

The initiative, coordinated by the shadow policing minister, Louise Haigh, says that in many cases survivors are being retraumatised by their abusers in court.

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The letter urges the government to use the domestic abuse bill to introduce a ban on abusers using parental access rights to have contact with children they conceived through rape.

It follows a campaign by Sammy Woodhouse, a survivor of Rotherham’s child exploitation scandal, who has called for a change in the law after revealing the man who raped her as a teenager had been given a chance to play a role in her son’s life.

The letter says the case “has lifted the lid on an injustice at the heart of the system”, adding that a lack of transparency in family courts, while essential to protect privacy, “masks decisions that are made contrary to the interests of victims of domestic abuse, rape and violence or their children”.

Haigh, the Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley, is attempting to introduce the change with her private member’s bill, the parental rights (rapists) and family courts bill.

At prime minister’s questions, Theresa May promised a government response but said there was no apparent need for a public inquiry into the issue. She was responding to a question from Haigh, who said the scale of the issue of abusive former partners being given unsupervised contact with their child had been uncovered by the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme.

“Does the prime minister agree that there is something wrong with a system that forces contact between children and parents that are known risks to that child, and if she does agree, will she commission that independent inquiry today?” the Haigh asked.

May replied: “The family court system should never be used to coerce or to re-victimise those who have been abused, and a child’s welfare must be the paramount consideration for the court in any proceeding.”

She said the head of the family division had put forward some draft guidelines last week to give “greater clarity on some issues around the family courts”.

“The Ministry of Justice currently have not seen evidence to suggest that a public inquiry is necessary, but I will ensure that the new minister for justice meets the honourable lady to discuss the concerns raised,” May said.

Labour and Tory MPs have supported Haigh’s letter to the justice secretary. Under the Children Act 1989 there is no absolute right for any parent to have contact with a child and courts are free to determine what is in the best interests of the child.

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Courts have discretion to consider the facts and circumstances of each case, including the actions of the parents, the wishes and feelings of the child and any evidence of risk of harm, and to come to a decision on the facts of each case.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “The family court system should never be used as a way to coerce or re-victimise those who have been abused.

“The law places a child’s welfare as the paramount consideration but we continue to work with other relevant departments and stakeholders to consider how we can better protect vulnerable mothers and children in our family courts.”

The domestic abuse bill contains clauses that will outlaw the practice of abusers cross-examining their former victims in court – a promise first made more than two years ago.

Last month Gloria De Piero, a shadow justice minister, wrote to the Ministry of Justice to demand proper enforcement of the courtroom practice direction that guides judges on how to deal with domestic abuse cases.

“Victims of abuse, frontline women’s support services and specialist lawyers have raised concerns that there is a significant lack of consistency in the implementation of the practice direction, PD12J, within the family courts,” she wrote.

De Piero called for “domestic abuse recorders “ to be appointed to courts to check on how whether the practice direction is being observed.