Hannah Summers, Guardian 1 November 2020
London victims’ commissioner calls for overhaul of family courts, including child contact payments
A criminal conviction is not necessarily a bar to a child having contact with the offending parent – or to both parents sharing the associated costs.
London’s independent victims’ commissioner is calling for a major overhaul of the family courts, claiming the current system allows perpetrators “legal opportunities” to continue their abuse.
Claire Waxman said the domestic abuse bill, awaiting its second hearing in the House of Lords, did not provide adequate protection to abuse survivors and left many having to face abusers repeatedly, or pay for the cost of facilitating child contact arrangements.
She is working with lawyers to submit an amendment to the bill to prevent the family courts ordering survivors to pay costs associated with their children having contact with the person who perpetrated the abuse.
She said: “I have seen countless cases where criminal courts have granted a protective order such as a restraining order, only for the family court to facilitate ongoing contact between survivor and perpetrator through repeated court hearings.
“I know of examples where courts have granted perpetrators significant control over their victim’s life from afar, including mandating how many emails from their abuser they have to respond to in a week.”
Waxman’s comments follow a session at the House of Lords last month during which survivors spoke of their experiences of the family court.
She said: “The pervasive culture of ‘contact at all costs’ has put too many victims at risk of serious harm through unsafe child contact arrangements, sometimes in their own homes. And I’m aware of many cases where these survivors have then been ordered to pay the costs to enable these unsafe arrangements. This is state-sanctioned abuse and it needs to stop.”
Current legislation allows the court to order which parents should pay for supervised contact or other costs. A criminal conviction is not necessarily a bar to a child having contact with the offending parent – or to both parents sharing the associated costs.
Charlotte Proudman, a human rights barrister, said: “I’m seeing more and more that victims of domestic abuse are being ordered to pay 50% of child contact costs to alleged perpetrators – the vast majority of which are fathers who are not paying any child maintenance. Judges are not always giving due consideration to the parents’ financial means.”
In one case, a woman whose former partner is under police investigation for threatening her with a weapon had been ordered to pay half the costs for him to have supervised contact with their child, said Proudman.
Allegations that the father had previously raped his former partner are the subject of an ongoing investigation by the family court. Proudman said: “Welfare officers have questioned whether he should be seeing his child at all while the fact-find is ongoing.”
She added: “Irrespective of the outcome, the judge has not properly considered the mother’s financial means. She relies on universal credit and is currently homeless because her ex is refusing to leave the family home. Meanwhile, she is paying half of the supervision costs – typically £150 for weekly sessions.”
Lucy Reed, a family law barrister and chair of The Transparency Project charity, said: “Once the court has made a decision it is in the best interests of a child to have contact with both parents, it may well be the best way to facilitate that is by sharing the costs.
“In my experience courts will make the best decisions they can knowing they have limited powers to enforce any financial aspect of their order and there is often no other source of funding.”
But she said judges should give fair weight to both parents’ financial means.
She added: “Courts should be alive to the fact that where there are allegations of coercive or abusive behaviour there is a need to avoid inadvertently making orders that either jeopardise a caring parent’s ability to provide for their child or that may inadvertently perpetuate financial control.”
One woman, a self-employed writer, told the Guardian she felt the family court had perpetuated the financial abuse she suffered in her abusive relationship after ordering her to undertake travel costs so her children could visit their father abroad.
She said: “The court said he should come to England for some of the contact meetings but he refuses and will only take up the ones in his country. I’m spending between £150 and £300 a month on train tickets.”
A government spokesperson said: “Where parents cannot agree on child contact arrangements, independent judges will determine if an order is appropriate and whether costs should be shared.
“It is never acceptable for parents to evade their financial responsibilities to their children and the Child Maintenance Service will continue to clamp down on people who think they can abuse or dodge the system.”