This is the text of a presentation at the St Johns Private Law conference on 14th June 2023
To have or not to have a finding of fact hearing is a key decision in proceedings. Relationships that are ending up in court have ended badly. The adversarial process is undoubtedly harmful to parties and finding of fact hearings cause enormous delay. It can be very necessary to establish what happened, in order to make sensible decisions about the way forward, but the courts are not there to validate either party’s perspective as to why the relationship broke down or how horrible the other one was. The guidance is now very clear – Unless it will be relevant to, and necessary for, your decision regarding the welfare of the child, do not allow the court to be used to litigate such allegations.
These cases can be very difficult to run in practice, given how high emotions can run and how relatively unobjectionable behaviour during a relationship can be seen in a very different light once that relationship has soured. The gulf between the expectations of the client and what the court can deliver is often very wide indeed. The guidance with regard to decisions about findings of fact will be your shield against unreasonable client expectations.
I will examine the following
- Some historical context
- Summary of the May 2022 guidance
- Case law – when it goes wrong
Some historical context
The family justice system is caught between two very polarised views; those who assert it is a tool of misogynistic oppression, with a ‘pro contact culture’ that routinely hands over children to violent men and those who assert it is absurdly pro women and happy to cut men out of their children’s lives. Those of us who work in the family justice system know that both positions are false. We are however very much alive to the problems caused by a system which lacks resources and judicial continuity. It’s fair to say that men and women feel equally traumatised and let down in the majority of proceedings.
Of recent years however, the campaigning groups who characterise the family courts as tools of misogynistic oppression have gained the ascendancy and the ear of the Ministry of Justice. This explains the renewed focus over the last few years on issues of domestic abuse in family proceedings.
We begin with the Victoria Derbyshire show in May 2019, whose eviscerating exploration of the family justice system, prompted the Ministry of Justice on 21st May to announce that a ‘panel of experts’ would review how the family courts protect children and parents in cases of domestic abuse, and that this would be completed in only three months. I laughed at this remarkably optimistic time scale and I was right to do so – we didn’t see the finished ‘Harm Report’ until June 2020 [Assessing risk of harm to children and parents in private law cases https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/895173/assessing-risk-harm-children-parents-pl-childrens-cases-report_.pdf]
I have been critical of this report as it relies primarily on self selecting accounts from those who felt badly done by the family justice system, with obviously no ability to fact check assertions they made. It was clearly written from the perspective of the ‘misogynistic oppression’ camp, identifying a ‘pro contact culture’ which resulted in ‘systemic minimisation of allegations of domestic abuse’. From my own experiences in practice over 20 years now, I think that is overstating it.
However, it identified other issues with which I can’t argue: resource constraints, working in silos and lack of communication and crucially the adversarial system itself, 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.
The stage was the set for the Court of Appeal decision Re H-N  EWCA Civ 448 where it was argued that the family justice system’s understanding of domestic abuse was not fit for purpose.
The Court of Appeal considered the development of the family courts’ approach to issues of abuse. The definition of ‘abuse’ was expanded in 2017. PD12J paragraph 3 reflects the need to move away from characterising domestic abuse as separate incidents of violence, but looking more to patterns of acts and incidents, including incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour which can be demonstrated by psychological, physical, sexual, financial, or emotional abuse. Domestic abuse also includes culturally specific forms of abuse including, but not limited to, forced marriage, honour-based violence, dowry-related abuse and transnational marriage abandonment.
We have come a long way from the 1970s and the focus on ‘violence’ only. No one argued before the court that this definition of ‘abuse’ should change and the Court of Appeal concluded therefore that it was fit for purpose. Although the structure of the definition of ‘domestic abuse’ in clause 1 of the Domestic Abuse Bill [‘DAB’] currently before Parliament differs from that in PD12J, the content is substantially the same.
The Court of Appeal therefore concluded:
We are therefore of the view that PD12J is and remains, fit for the purpose for which it was designed namely to provide the courts with a structure enabling the court first to recognise all forms of domestic abuse and thereafter on how to approach such allegations when made in private law proceedings. As was also recognised by The Harm Panel, we are satisfied that the structure properly reflects modern concepts and understanding of domestic abuse
The key guidance is at para 139:
Domestic abuse is often rightly described as pernicious. In recent years, the greatly improved understanding both of the various forms of abuse, and also of the devastating impact it has upon the victims and any children of the family, described in the main section of this judgment, have been most significant and positive developments. The modern approach and understanding is reflected in the ‘General principles’ section of PD12J(4). As discussed at paragraphs 36–41 above that does not, however, mean that in every case where there is an allegation of, even very serious, domestic abuse it will be either appropriate or necessary for there to be a finding of fact hearing, so much is clear from the detailed guidance set out in paragraphs 16–20 of PD12J and, in particular, at paragraph 17.
Summary of May 2022 Guidance from Lady Justice Macur for Judges and magistrates.
- Make every hearing count.
- Judges must remain in control.
- Delay is inimical to child welfare.
- It is for the judge to determine the need for a finding of fact. ‘
At the FHDRA / first directions appointment/ to be considered at gatekeeping
If a MIAM hasn’t taken place, ask why not – duty to consider non-court dispute resolution: FPR r3.3.
TRIAGE – what are the real issues in the case. Are they safeguarding concerns?
What is being alleged in terms of domestic abuse – look at definitions at FPR PD 12J [2A] and  in addition to PD 12J .
Has Form C1A been completed? Is there a response? If so, are there admissions? Can you see a possible way forward?
Have you got enough information to avoid seeking further evidence? If not, consider what is needed in the fact specific circumstances of the case.
The judgment in Re H-N  EWCA Civ 448 (paras 41-49) cautioned against allowing a Scott Schedule to distort the fact finding process (by becoming the sole focus of a hearing), but did not rule out the use of a schedule as a structure to assist in analysing specific allegations. Specific allegations of physical abuse fit well with a schedule, other allegations that require the court to look at a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour will require a statement. Probably most cases will benefit from both.
Is a fact-finding hearing required?
RELEVANCE, PURPOSE, PROPORTIONALITY AND MITIGATION
- the nature of the allegations and the extent to which those allegations are likely to be relevant to the making of a child arrangements order;
- that the purpose of a fact finding is to allow assessment of the future risk to the child and the impact of any abuse on the child;
- whether fact-finding is necessary or whether other evidence suffices; and,
- whether fact-finding is proportionate. Do the allegations at their highest go to safeguarding in general or could they be mitigated by supervision of contact or other measures?
If the decision is made to have a finding of fact hearing, then robust case management is required.
The court controls the evidence in the case. FPR r1.1, r1.4, r.4.1 and that the court controls the evidence in the case: FPR r.22.1.
No case should be timetabled to a fact-finding hearing without a properly completed witness template. This will assist the parties and manage their expectations.
Section 63 Domestic Abuse Act 2021 established a presumption that where a party or witness is or at risk of being a victim of domestic abuse from a party to the proceedings, the quality of their evidence and/or their participation as a party is likely to be diminished by reason of vulnerability and this requires some thought.
Part 3A FPR deals with vulnerable witnesses and their participation in proceedings.. PD3AA para 5.2 requires a ground rules hearing (or ground rules component of a hearing) before the vulnerable person gives evidence. Participation directions are a general case management direction made for the purpose of assisting a witness or party to give evidence or participate in proceedings;
Consideration of FPR r.3A and PD 3AA are mandatory and the obligation to consider vulnerability is the court’s, regardless of whether a party is represented or if participation directions are sought.
Under sections 65 and 66 of the Domestic Abuse Act, the court will appoint a qualified legal representative (QLR) to cross-examine relevant witnesses if parties:
- do not have their own legal representative
- are prohibited by the court from cross-examining, due to allegations of domestic abuse
Lucy Reed KC has blogged about her frustrations with this scheme, noting in March 2023 that the QLR scheme was only introduced for cases issued after 21st July 2022 and court listing is backed up, very few eligible cases have reached the finding of fact stage so far. But many more will be coming. And its not at all clear that enough people have signed up to the scheme to enable it to operate effectively. I will say no more, because I am not touching it with a bargepole. The removal of legal aid for private law family cases will risk the collapse of many hearings; where there will be no QLR and guidance for Judges is that they may not cross examine – which must be right.
Re-visiting a decision not to have a fact-finding hearing
The court must, at all stages in the proceedings, consider whether domestic abuse is raised as an issue: FPR PD 12J . However, guard against attempts to re-argue the question once a decision has been made. What is said to have changed to undermine the original analysis? Proceedings should have judicial continuity, wherever possible, and a consistent approach.
If ‘new’ evidence relating to past events is presented, ask why it was not available or disclosed before. If no good reason is advanced, then you may refuse to admit it. The more significant the evidence is said to be, the more compelling the explanation needs to be for its late receipt.
Case Law – when it goes wrong.
B v P  EWFC B18 (31 March 2022)
The district judge was not referred to the need for a ground rules hearing, Part 3A of the FPR, practice directions 3AA or 12J; she was not referred to the definition of domestic abuse and she was not reminded of the decision in Re H-N.
At para 40 of the appeal judgment it is noted:
The judge does not set out a history of the relationship or a chronology of the events relied upon. She sets out each of the allegations made by either of the parents and considers whether it is proved or not proved. It appears to me that she did not follow the approach endorsed in Re H-N, of stepping back from the precise allegations and considering the behaviour as a whole. She did not rule on whether the father’s behaviour was coercive or controlling.
The judge also got some of the facts wrong – for example, finding that the respondent had not entered the appellant’s bedroom, when in both his oral and written evidence he admitted that he had, in order to gather up her clothes and throw them outside.
The court expressed sympathy for the district judge, who had to deal with a remote hearing, a litigant in person and an interpreter but regardless, the findings could not stand.
K v K  EWCA Civ 468 (08 April 2022)
This case re-emphasised the general Re H-N guidance and provided a fresh emphasis on methods of ‘non-court’ dispute resolution and when they should be considered.
Briefly, the father submitted that the district judge had not considered his case that the mother had alienated the children and the findings made of rape, coercive and controlling behaviour and physical abuse of the children are unsound. The mother argued that there was a high threshold needed to over turn findings of fact, and it had not been reached in this case.
The Court of Appeal found that there had not been proper consideration of the need for a finding of fact, and the findings made were unsafe. The case would therefore be sent back to a circuit judge to decide if a fresh finding of fact is needed, following the guidance set out in Re H-N. In brief:
- The parties had not taken advantage of a MIAM – Mediation Intake and Assessment Meeting and this might have resolved logistical issues about the father’s contact. The mother had initially agreed to unsupervised contact and had not seen the allegation of rape or generalised controlling behaviour as central to the resolution of the issues between them. .
- Any judge considering a finding of fact must identify at an early stage the real issues in the case, as relate to the welfare of the child. A finding of fact is only necessary if the alleged abuse is relevant to what the court is being asked to decide relating to the children’s welfare.
- The finding of rape was unsafe as the Judge did not consider all the available evidence, including the mother’s untrue assertion that she had reported this to the family doctor.
A fact-finding hearing is not free-standing litigation. It always takes place within proceedings to protect a child from abuse or regarding the child’s future welfare. It is not to be allowed to become an opportunity for the parties to air their grievances. Nor is it a chance for parents to seek the court’s validation of their perception of what went wrong in their relationship. If fact-finding is to be justified in the first place or continued thereafter, the court must be able to identify how any alleged abusive behaviour is, or may be, relevant to the determination of the issues between the parties as to the future arrangements for the children.
So where next?
The family justice system puts proof of facts at its heart. An allegation which is not proved and which is not admitted is not a fact. I think there is a real risk to the fairness and integrity of court proceedings if a presumption is made at any stage that one party is more likely to be telling the truth.
In May 2023 the Ministry of Justice produced its implementation plan – a progress report of what’s happened since the Harm Report. Of particular note is the Domestic Abuse Act, automatic eligibility for special measures, right to be supported in court by an IDVA, the pilot scheme in courts in Devon and North Wales launched in February 2022. The November 2020 review of the presumption of parental involvement remains ongoing!
But the language of this report is interesting. It speaks only of ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ – no room for ‘alleged’ or ‘assertions’. This speaks very much to the FJS as ‘tool of misogynistic oppression’ and I do not think this is helpful.
There remains considerable dissatisfaction from campaigning groups. Women’s Aid issued a statement in May 2023 about its view of progress since the Harm Report
Almost three years on from the Harm Panel report, we have not seen evidence of ‘cultural changes’ to improve safety for women and children experiencing abuse. This was a landmark report and we had high hopes for the change which was promised – but we continue to hear day in, day out from survivors that they are still experiencing disbelief, danger and trauma within the family courts.
….. We remain unclear what ‘compulsory’ training on domestic abuse for judges includes, and in our experience women who allege domestic abuse continue to face discrimination and victim-blaming attitudes when trying to secure safe child contact arrangements for their children.
“We urge the government, judiciary and family court professionals to work together with specialist domestic abuse organisations and survivors to deliver the system wide reform which is still so desperately needed to ensure children are put first in the family courts.”
The tensions will of course always remain between those who see cases primarily through the eyes of a ‘victim’ who ought not to have to prove herself and be re-traumatised and those who must apply and obey fundamental legal principles in articles 8 and 6 of the ECHR. The likely collapse of the QLR scheme does not bode well for anyone.
But all we can do is try and manage those tensions as best we can and in the framework set by law. And resist unilateral attempts by single issue campaigning groups to influence law and policy.
Report to the UN re ‘parental alientation’ as a ‘pseudo concept’ which leads to courts ignoring domestic abuse https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G23/070/18/PDF/G2307018.pdf?OpenElement
Complaint against the report from Gender Parity UK https://drive.google.com/file/d/1FWv2JnDVLXbyjC-LEMShk4KqqQYC7Enl/view
Gulf between the Victims Commissioner and practice in the family courts grows wider – see July 2023 report – The Family Court and domestic abuse: achieving cultural change.