In May 2019 a ‘3 month inquiry’ into issues of domestic abuse and applications to court about children, was announced by the Ministry of Justice. I expressed considerable scepticism at the time, not least scoffing about the wholly unrealistic timescales proposed.
In that at least I can see I was correct. The final report was published at the end of June 2020 so a 13 month process. Even that seems astonishingly quick to me. It is without doubt an impressive piece of work, covering a great deal of important and necessary conversations about the family justice system. All practitioners need to read it, digest it and think about it carefully .
I will not pretend that I am about to unpick it line by line. But I thought it might be interesting or helpful to share my immediate concerns.
In May 2019 I said this about the real problems facing the family court system:
Family courts are not the arenas for frightened or angry people. An adversarial court system that requires proof is a hard place to be for those who believe themselves to be or who actually are victims of violence.
I quite accept that most of us entering into a relationship do not at the outset start gathering evidence of our partner’s appalling behaviour. One of the real evils of coercively controlling relationships is the very long time it can take to work out what is going on and to gather the resources and courage to leave.
There appears to be widespread public ignorance about how the forensic process operates and how you prove an allegation in court. That is not anyone’s ‘fault’ but it is a great shame more people are not prepared to accept their lack of understanding before diving into the debate.
But the elephant in the room is the removal of resources. Social workers and Cafcass need time and space to conduct investigations, to thoughtfully reflect, and to build relationships with parents. Courts dealing with private law disputes need to offer judicial continuity and swift fact-finding hearings – which currently doesn’t happen because we don’t have enough judges or courts.
The removal of legal aid from private law family cases has led to a huge rise in the number of litigants in person, with obvious and serious problems for how cases are managed. This removal was endorsed by Parliament in 2012 with the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012.
Research by Citizens Advice in 2015 stated what we all know to be true: “Restricted access to legal aid is one of the biggest barriers to support for victims of domestic abuse in England. In their work helping victims of domestic abuse, only 12% of advisers reported being unaffected by the changes that came into force from April 2013.
The aim of the report is to provide an understanding of how effectively the family courts identify and respond to allegations of domestic abuse and other serious offences, in cases involving disputes between parents about the arrangements for their children. These are known as ‘private law children proceedings’ because they are a dispute between private individuals and not any agency of the State.
The report sets out its summary and recommendations. The expert panel received ‘over 1,200 responses’ from individuals and organisations and held roundtables. The evidence focused on domestic abuse.
The report noted key themes
- Resource constraints; resources available have been inadequate to keep up with increasing demand in private law children proceedings, and more parties are coming to court unrepresented.
- The pro-contact culture; respondents felt that courts placed undue priority on ensuring contact with the non-resident parent, which resulted in systemic minimisation of allegations of domestic abuse.
- Working in silos; submissions highlighted differences in approaches and culture between criminal justice, child protection (public law) and private law children proceedings, and lack of communication and coordination between family courts and other courts and agencies working with families, which led to contradictory decisions and confusion.
- An adversarial system; with parents placed in opposition on what is often not a level playing field in cases involving domestic abuse, child sexual abuse and self- representation, with little or no involvement of the child.
I agree with much of this. But there are some things summarised there and discussed in greater detail in the body of the report which I find frankly surprising in any document co-produced with a number of senior laywers.
Pro contact culture and other curious statements
The Panel say this about pro-contact culture
Previous literature has identified the ‘pro-contact culture’ of the family courts and we have adopted this terminology as appropriate to capture the systemic and deep-seated nature of the courts’ commitment to maintaining contact between children and non-resident parents. A ‘culture’ describes the particular set of beliefs and behaviours (sometimes unconscious or taken-for-granted) of a group of people. Most institutions develop a distinctive culture over time, and the family courts are no exception. This does not mean that all members of the institution necessarily agree with or conform to all aspects of the culture. But it does mean that there is a strong pressure to conform, and that cultural change does not happen easily. ‘
The pro-contact culture’ is not some whimsy or consequence of submission to the patriarchy. It is the law. It has long been the law. It is enforced in various decisions of the European Court. I do not understand why the law is reframed here in clearly pejorative terms as a ‘culture’ .
Children have a right to a relationship with both parents, so long as they are safe. I agree however, that a system starved on resources and which operates on an adversarial platform may end up giving a crude prominence to the presumption that contact is in a child’s best interest.
I also reject and am astonished to see this comment about liaison with the criminal justice system:
Silo working can result in evidence of abuse accepted in one system, for example the criminal courts, not being acknowledged or effectively engaged with in the family court.
Police disclosure and findings of the criminal courts are vital pieces of evidence and never overlooked in any case where I am instructed. Of course, getting the information from the police quickly is another matter. Again an area where lack of resources make it very difficult for the family court system to do its job.
The Panel comments:
Many respondents reported that regardless of the particular circumstances, even where the most serious allegations of domestic abuse were raised, courts expected that parents would work together to facilitate contact arrangements.
Raising an allegation is not the same as proving it. Where serious allegations are made the court needs to determine them by way of a finding of fact. I accept, and this has been known for some time, that early findings of fact are often essential. An assertion of something another does not accept and which has not already been proved, is not a fact and never can be ‘a fact’.
We can ‘raise’ whatever allegations we like. To ask allegations to impact on the proceeses of a legal system they have to be proven. I am very surprised and uneasy to read a phrase like this in a document produced by the Ministry of Justice.
The value of self selective lived experience.
This is without doubt my key concern. I am worried that what I feared has come to pass. There was no scrutiny of the reliability of the accounts given to the Panel and yet such indivudal accounts represented the vast majority of responses to it. 87% of responses ‘in scope’ were from individuals with personal experience of private law children proceedings – mainly mothers and their families.
The report makes it clear the Panel ‘were unable to review individual case files’. But reliance on evidence from an entirely self selecting group apparently causes little concern as this was ‘supplemented with a literature review and a review of relevant case law.’ So I am not quite sure what the Panel mean when they later say ‘In practice, the large number of responses meant that the panel needed an extra six months to ensure that the evidence could be thoroughly analysed and reviewed’.
What exactly were they reviewing? Seeing case law and ‘literature’ through the lens of ‘lived experience’ that you accept as true without investigation sounds to me suspiciously like the seeds of a self fulfilling prophecy.
It is clear the responses from the lawyers were different to the responses from the mothers:
Submissions from legal professionals described their experience in cases involving abuse which varied in persistence and severity, whereas most mothers described relatively severe and sustained abuse, almost invariably involving coercive control.
No question appears to be raised as to why the lawyers saw things so differently. I think it is very important to robustly test assertions which are so serious. Such as this –
Respondents felt that orders made by the court had enabled the continued control of children and adult victims of domestic abuse by alleged abusers, as well as the continued abuse of victims and children. Many submissions detailed the long-term impacts of this abuse manifesting in physical, emotional, psychological, financial and educational harm and harm to children’s current and future relationships.
Many respondents felt that the level of abuse they and their children experienced worsened following proceedings in the family court. There were concerns that efforts to report continuing abuse were treated dismissively by criminal justice and child welfare agencies because of the family court orders. Many respondents also highlighted the negative impacts felt by children who were compelled to have contact with abusive parents, and the burden placed on mothers and children to comply with contact orders compared to minimal expectations on perpetrators of abuse to change their behaviour.
Again, there seems to be no attempt to clarify the nature and status of the alleged victims and perpetrators. Were the ‘perpetrators’ referred to here FOUND TO BE SO in either a criminal or civil court? Or are we back in territory of allegations being raised? I have never known a case where a person found to have perpetrated serious abuse was simply left to get on with it and unsupervised contact ordered.
But I have experienced many cases where fathers never had direct contact with their children again after allegations raised about their behaviour by the children’s rmothers.
The Panel does recognise the limitations of its approach, but concludes that it doesn’t impact their ability to make robust recommednations
Nor can we tell how representative the submissions are of all court users and professionals. As with all inquiries, the individual and organisational submissions and engagement in the data gathering process were voluntary. There is therefore likely to be some selection bias. Individuals who are largely satisfied with the process and outcomes in the family courts may have less incentive to provide evidence. Similarly, professionals who work in the system may have more incentive to defend how the system operates.
Nor can we test the accuracy and completeness of the accounts given. It is not possible to have an ‘objective’ account of what occurred in each case. Qualitative evidence presents the perceptions and views of individuals and organisations that respond. These views will be influenced by the attitudes, cultural context, organisational culture, specific role in the proceedings and individual biases of those providing evidence. They can also be subject to recall bias. The panel was well aware that submissions can be based on misunderstandings, misapprehensions or deliberate distortion as well as wishful thinking.
Despite these inherent limitations, we are persuaded that the evidence gathered does identify systemic problems with how family courts deal with domestic abuse cases and cases raising other risks of harm in private law children cases. It is unlikely that the panel has managed to uncover only isolated mistakes or rare events. The evidence does point to issues affecting multiple cases across the system and with potentially serious effects, although we were also able to identify instances of good practice.
I think this is powerfully naïve. I am particularly concerned by this comment:
…majority with detailed descriptions that appeared to provide authentic accounts of individual experiences.
‘Appeared to provide’ just isn’t good enough when it is used to scaffold the following comments. This has never been my experience in any private law case over 20 years.
Many respondents argued that in ordering direct contact in the majority of cases, the court ignores, dismisses and systematically minimises allegations of domestic abuse and simply treats the case as if domestic abuse was of no continuing relevance. Too often, even where findings of domestic abuse are made, the submissions suggest that victims are told to ‘move on’ and to progress contact, even though the perpetrator has shown no or minimal effort to accept or engage with the findings made against them. Thus, the victim is left with the responsibility of ensuring that contact takes place, including liaison with the abuser, and sometimes against the expressed wishes of the child.
We can see how this is being interpreted beyond the Ministry of Justice and how the Panel’s willingness to accept the unverified accounts of Respondents may now play out.
“The Court Said” has already launched a petition. This is an organisation supported by a number of women with ‘personal’ experiences of the family court system. Two of these women are Samantha Baldwin and Victoria Haigh, both subject to serious findings in the family court about the harm they inflicted on their children and both enthusiastic self identified victims of the family court.
A self identifying ‘journalist’ Richard Carvath who also supports the Court Said has just been convicted of harassment due to his campaigning against the family courts which he believes is justified because of the ‘detailed’ accounts given to him of injustice.
It is or should be abundantly clear that ‘personal’ experiences do not provide the whole story. And that those with axes to grind need to be treated with polite scepticism.
If the accounts of the Respondents to the Panel are simply accepted, its clear what The Court Said wants to happen now. I quote from the petition.
The government needs to launch an immediate case review and a mechanism for recourse for victims affected by the crisis. Thousands of children have been removed unlawfully from victims of Domestic Abuse with no prospect of reversing the situation. Many more thousands are living in fear with unsafe Court decisions impacting families dealing with a Domestic Abuser. Without recourse, this will continue.
The report publishes the harms endured by survivor families in the Family Court system. It is time to right the wrongs and provide compensation for victims, whose lives, families and futures have been forever marked, or even destroyed by an unsafe decision in the Family Court.
We call upon the government urgently to immediately review all cases that have gone before the proposed reforms, and the ones that will suffer during the transition to reform. We call upon the government to reverse decisions where possible and provide compensation to those affected by the crisis. #thecourtsaid
The Panel Report sets out a lengthy list of recommendations and hopes, some of which sound sensible, some a little more optimistic – the Panel should probably have considered a little more carefully the impact of the ECHR on their recommendation to end a presumption of parental involvement for e.g.
But no one could argue in good faith with efforts to make sure that the wishes and feelings of children are properly heard and they are not put under pressure by either parent to toe any particular line.
But I am afraid I cannot read something like this without a hollow laugh
The panel hopes that its recommendations will empower judges, lawyers, Cafcass, Cafcass Cymru and other family justice professionals to work to their best potential in private law children’s proceedings, and above all, that its recommendations will benefit children and parents experiencing domestic abuse.
If parents in the system don’t have lawyers, if there is no where in the court bulding to sit and talk, let alone wait in safety, if CAFCASS don’t get the time and resources they need to do their job properly, if anyone’s account is simply accepted without challenge, all of this is meaningless.
Resources are rightly identified in this report as a major stumbling block to any effective change and I agree wholeheartedly with this
The panel believes that the shortage of resource affects the whole system, but is most concerning for domestic abuse cases, which are likely to be more resource-intensive to address than non-abuse cases. Safeguarding requires time and resources to do a detailed and careful risk-assessment; the need for special measures requires adequate court facilities; fact-finding hearings require additional judicial time; and additional interventions may be required to make any child arrangements safe. This all costs money. The scarcity of resources mean that the system finds it difficult to address the additional demands presented by domestic abuse cases:
So what will be done about that?
Nothing. No doubt any spare cash in the system will now go to setting up further serious case reviews as is urged by ‘The Court Said’. This seems to be how we roll now as a nation.
I hope I am wrong. But I doubt I am. Let’s meet in a year’s time and see what came to pass.
EDIT July 4th 2020. The Government’s plans to implement its reforms are set out here. Their plan seems to involve yet another pilot scheme.
I do hate being right all the time.
The Empathy Gap 14th June 2020 – Commentary on Adrienne Barnett in “A genealogy of hostility: parental alienation in England and Wales”, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law (Jan 2020). The paper discusses the role of parental alienation within the English and Welsh family courts.
The Empathy Gap 11th June 2020 – Commentary on “U.S. child custody outcomes in cases involving parental alienation and abuse allegations: what do the data show?”, By Joan S. Meier, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law 42:1, 92-105 (2020)
Ministry of Justice response to the Harm Report re extension of legal aid May 2023
Women’s Aid response to the Harm Report progress May 2023