My response to the Inquiry Assessing risk of harm to children and parents in private law children cases

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

Good practice’ would be to commission serious and proper research into the actual nature of the problem, rather than inviting personal anecdote to take the place of robust data. I am very concerned about the nature of this Inquiry; the manner of its inception and the choice of its Panel. Why are there no representatives of any father’s charities? Why has the Inquiry proceeded on entirely partial assumptions about Judges simply ignoring evidence? Is evidence going to be gathered about the rate of false or exaggerated allegations of violence? About the impact of LASPO on encouraging such in order to qualify for legal aid?

Take the survey here

Response ID ANON-CNG1-5F53-C
Submitted to Assessing risk of harm to children and parents in private law children cases
Submitted on 2019-07-19 20:27:16

Your experience of private law children proceedings

1 Please tell us in your own words about how the family court responded to allegations of domestic abuse or other serious offences in
your case, and/or the effects on you and/or your children.

I have represented mothers, fathers and children in contested private law cases for 20 years now. In my experience, the family courts respond as appropriately as they can, taking into account the serious difficulties caused by lack of availability of legal aid and judges. The failings in the law, in my view, has been a reluctance to hold early findings of fact and allowing intractably hostile parents to drag out proceedings over many years, by which time the children have ‘aged out’. I have not experienced any judge being ‘ignorant’ of issues around abuse and violence. I do not think Judges need ‘training’ about violence – they need space and time
to adjudicate properly upon cases. I am extremely concerned that many calling for ‘training’ appear to have a financial interest in such training becoming widespread.

2 Was your experience in the family court:
In 2018-2019, In 2014-2017, Before 2014

Raising allegations of domestic abuse or other serious offences in private law children proceedings

Are there any difficulties in raising the issue of domestic abuse or other serious offences against a parent or child, in private law children proceedings?
Yes

The difficulties in raising issues of domestic violence, in my view, clearly do NOT arise from misunderstanding or ignorance of the law. The difficulties arise from the lack of available court time and the increasing number of litigants in person. There is clearly a lack of understanding about the forensic process and the requirements of proof amongst those who are not legally trained. Better education about this might help. I suspect the ‘I believe’ policy has done enormous harm here. Women come to court expecting to be ‘believed’ and it is a shock to find out that the court process demands proof.

Children’s voices

4 How are children’s voices taken into account in private law children proceedings where there are allegations of domestic abuse or other
serious offences? Do children feel heard in these cases? What helps or obstructs children being heard?
It is my experience over 20 years of representing children that the vast majority do NOT wish to participate in court proceedings. They want a decision to be made about their future by an adult who cares about what happens to them. They generally cannot and do not wish to engage with the evidence. My experience of guardians is generally positive; they appear to be committed and produce thoughtful and helpful reports. I have also noticed an increased willingness amongst judges to see and speak to children outside the actual proceedings, which I think is very positive.

The procedure where domestic abuse is raised

5 Are fact-finding hearings held when they should be?
No
There appears to be a reluctance to hold findings of fact on the basis that ‘it won’t help’ if there is a perception that the allegations are not ‘serious’ enough to mean that direct contact would not be ordered. This seems to offer only a short term gain; my experience is that allegations which are not ‘put to bed’ continue to cause considerable difficulty for the proper resolution of contested private law cases.

6 Where domestic abuse is found to have occurred, how is future risk assessed and by whom? Is risk assessed only in relation to
children, or also in relation to the non-abusive parent?
In my experience risk is assessed by CAFCASS, a social worker or the judge. Risk is generally seen ‘in the round’. I am not aware of any Judge who would say that a person who is violent to a parent but not the child could still be a ‘good parent’.

7 How effective is Practice Direction 12J in protecting children and victims of domestic abuse from harm?
It does what it can. But it clearly cannot assist in those cases – sadly frequent – where women will continue or resume a relationship with a violent man. Nor can it mitigate against structural problems such as lack of alternative housing.

8 What are the challenges for courts in implementing PD12J? Is it implemented consistently? If not, how and why do judges vary in their
implementation of the Practice Direction.
In my experience in London and and on the South Western Circuit I have not noticed any worrying inconsistencies in implementation of the PD.

9 What has been the impact of the presumption of parental involvement in cases where domestic abuse is alleged? How is the
presumption applied or disapplied in these cases?

The presumption is a joke. It is meaningless. It has no impact.

10 Where domestic abuse is found to have occurred, to what extent do the child arrangement orders made by the court differ from orders made in cases not involving domestic abuse?

Depending on the level of severity of abuse, the distinction is in the nature and degree of contact ordered. When serious allegations are found proved, the order is
invariably for indirect contact only.

Safety and protection at court for victims of domestic abuse and other serious offences
11 What is the experience of victims of domestic abuse or other serious offences in requesting arrangements to protect their safety at
court?
Over 20 years I have found the courts become much more responsive to issues around safety at court. However, much of this depends on the physical resources of the court building itself. Some are simply not fit for purpose and it is very difficult in those buildings to ensure that the parties are kept separate.

12 Do family courts make the right decisions about whether an alleged victim of domestic abuse or other serious offences is vulnerable?
Yes
Vulnerable people clearly need appropriate help and representation at court. There appears to be good and widespread understanding amongst lawyers about what is needed.

13 What is the experience of victims of domestic abuse and other serious offences of being directly cross-examined by their alleged
abuser/alleged perpetrator? What is their experience of having to ask questions of their alleged abuser/perpetrator?
I have never known this to happen. When my client was facing XX by a former partner she alleged was abusive, the Judge asked questions. But this is clearly a dreadful situation and should not be tolerated. Both alleged victim and alleged perpetrator ought to have legal representation. It is not fair to ask that the Judge undertake this role.

14 What are the challenges for courts in implementing FPR Part 3A and PD3AA? Are they implemented consistently? If not, how and why
are they inconsistent?
Resources and time.
My experience is that they are implemented consistently.

15 How effective are these provisions in protecting victims of domestic abuse or other serious offences from harm in private law children
proceedings?
I have no idea. The proceedings themselves are very difficult for vulnerable parties, regardless of the efforts made. I do not know what is meant by ‘effective’ in this question.

Repeated applications to the family court in the context of domestic abuse

16 What evidence is there of repeated applications in relation to children being used as a form of abuse, harassment or control of the
other parent?

I do not think this happens very often. Such applications may well be interpreted by one party as an attempt at control. But people are entitled to make applications to the court to secure their legal rights. I have found Judge’s willing to make section 91(14) directions in the appropriate circumstances.

17 Under what circumstances do family courts make orders under s.91(14)?
add text in box:
They are mindful of the guidance of the Court of Appeal and consider it a serious application.

18 How do courts deal with applications for leave to apply following a s.91(14) order?
add text in box:
i have very little experience of this, which suggests to me it is not a common occurrence

19 What are the challenges for courts in applying s.91(14), including applications for leave to apply? Is there consistency in
decision-making? If not, how and why do inconsistencies arise?
I have found the majority of tribunals to consistently apply the Court of Appeal guidance. One judge did not; I appealed her decision and succeeded on that point. She wrongly stated that section 91(14) was not draconian and made an order against my male client.

20 How effective are s.91(14) orders in protecting children and non-abusive parents from harm?
add text in box: I have no idea. They appear to be an effective safeguard against unmeritorious applications.

Outcomes for children

21 What evidence is there of children and parents suffering harm as a result of orders made in private law children proceedings, where
there has been domestic abuse or other serious offences against a parent or child? (This can include harm to a parent caused by a child arrangements order which requires them to interact with the other parent in order to facilitate contact).

This is the problem. There is no ‘evidence’. There is a wealth of anecdote and complaint. But I am aware of no robust evidence. I do not consider the Women’s Aid reporting to be robust. This inquiry is going to invite a great deal of personal anecdote which may or may not have a firm factual foundation. I do not consider this is the way for a mature democracy to proceed to make decisions about any kind of justice system and I am frankly alarmed by this venture and the questions I have just attempted to answer.

22 What evidence is there about the risk of harm to children in continuing to have a relationship – or in not having a relationship – with a
domestically abusive parent (including a parent who has exercised coercive control over the family)?
I REPEAT ANSWER ABOVE

23 What evidence is there about the risk of harm to children in continuing to have a relationship – or in not having a relationship – with a
parent who has committed other serious offences against the other parent or a child such as child abuse, rape, sexual assault or murder?
I REPEAT ANSWER ABOVE

Any other comments or suggestions

24 Are there any examples of good practices in the family courts or which the family courts could adopt (perhaps from other areas of law)
in relation to the matters being considered by the panel?
‘Good practice’ would be to commission serious and proper research into the actual nature of the problem, rather than inviting personal anecdote to take the place of robust data. I am very concerned about the nature of this Inquiry; the manner of its inception and the choice of its Panel. Why are there no representatives of any father’s charities? Why has the Inquiry proceeded on entirely partial assumptions about Judges simply ignoring evidence? Is evidence going to be gathered about the rate of false or exaggerated allegations of violence? About the impact of LASPO on encouraging such in order to qualify for legal aid?

25 Do you wish to make any other comments on the matters being considered by the panel?
write text in box:
I think I have said enough. I hope my cynicism and alarm at this exercise prove unfounded

EDIT 

Have a look at this.  The aim is to protect against ‘perpetrators’. But tricky thing is this – who is deciding they are perpetrators? Is mere assertion now enough?

 

One thought on “My response to the Inquiry Assessing risk of harm to children and parents in private law children cases

  1. Pingback: What’s in a name? Complainant versus victim. | Child Protection Resource

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