Family courts inflict a form of state-sanctioned abuse on adults and children – the government can no longer claim ignorance

Watch tonight: Channel 4 Dispatches 10pm – very useful new research which supports the movement to stop violent fathers using the family courts to pursue mothers trying to protect themselves and their children, and to end the secrecy of the family courts

“Domestic abuse victims and children are being failed by family courts – it’s time to stop all the secrecy, writes Claire Waxman London’s first Victims’ Commissioner, The Independent 19 July 2021

This week Channel 4 Dispatches looks into the family court system and will bring much-needed attention to the “state-sanctioned abuse” experienced by adults and children in this country. While the programme is incredibly emotional and difficult to watch, it is essential viewing, as we must shine a light on what is going on inside these courts which are currently shrouded in secrecy.

After calling for an independent inquiry into the family courts, the government agreed to a short review and, last summer, the Ministry of Justice published a report on the family courts which confirmed what many of us have known for some time: that survivors of domestic abuse and their children are being failed by the family courts.

The report collected overwhelming evidence of the systemic failings of the family courts to properly account for, and guard against, domestic abuse. It acknowledged that the courts are being subverted by abusers and used as a tool to continue harassment and control. This failure in turn leads to unsafe decision making, with survivors and their children being forced into court-mandated interactions with abusers.

For many of us, the findings of the report came as no surprise. I have worked with countless survivors of abuse who have taken the deeply brave and often dangerous decision to leave an abusive relationship, to then find themselves subjected to further trauma through the courts. I have seen victims who have been granted restraining orders, only to have those orders ignored by the courts and be dragged back through numerous hearings with their abuser. I have seen the voices of children erased as courts ignore testimony about the fear they feel and instead prioritise contact with an abusive parent as it is deemed to be “in the child’s best interest”. Based on all I have seen, I have formed the view that the family courts inflict a form of state-sanctioned abuse.

There are many reasons why the family courts aren’t delivering the justice they should be, and these problems won’t be fixed overnight. But in my view a key piece of the puzzle for modernising and improving the courts would be regular, expert-led, mandatory training on domestic abuse for all judges and magistrates.

Abuse can be complex and multi-faceted. It can be insidious and covert, and the dynamics are not always immediately obvious. Our understanding of domestic abuse has also expanded rapidly in recent years and it would be entirely unrealistic for all judges and magistrates to be experts in the subject matter. Yet there is an established view that, because domestic abuse is so prevalent in family court cases, judges are already experts through experience.

Unfortunately, the findings of the Harm Panel report, plus evidence from recent case appeals, suggest this is not the case. In recent years we have seen shocking comments from family judges, including telling a victim she “wasn’t raped”, as she did not take sufficient steps to protect herself. We have seen antiquated views, such as a judge telling a woman she was “no shrinking violet” due to her sexual history which impacted his view of her claims of sexual assault. We have seen examples of bullying behaviour, including a judge telling a mother that if the case carried on for too long, she would have her child taken away and put into care.

In recent years we have also seen a worrying trend of domestic abuse survivors facing counter-allegations of “parental alienation”. The Harm Panel report found evidence of lawyers advising survivors not to raise domestic abuse in case the allegations were used as evidence of “alienation”.

We regularly see the instruction of self-styled “experts” in alienation who advise the court. I have seen numerous examples where these experts are not registered with a regulatory body, do not have specialist training in domestic abuse and recommend extreme forms of therapy. In this context, training for judges is even more crucial, so they can truly understand and identify abuse in all its forms.

Society and government alike urge survivors to find the courage to leave abuse. We promote campaigns telling survivors, “You Are Not Alone”. But once they do leave, we abandon them at the gates of the family courts, where we know their safety and the safety of their children cannot be guaranteed and the risks of their abuse will likely be overlooked.

The secrecy of family court proceedings has led to a total lack of accountability and transparency, which allows these abuses to take place within our courts. The tragedies outlined in this programme have been occurring for years, and yet the public – and even ministers – have remained largely unaware.

I hope government ministers will watch this programme, and understand that nothing has changed since the Harm Panel report was published a year ago. Despite their warm words, I am still seeing victims who are cross-examined by their abusers, who are denied the fact-finding process to determine domestic abuse, and who are forced into deeply unsafe arrangements.

The government can no longer claim not to know about the harm being inflicted, and they must take urgent steps to protect survivors.”