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Support for Domestic Violence Victims & the Voices of Children

Support for Domestic Violence Victims & the Voices of Children

Support for Domestic Violence Victims & the Voices of Children

In March 2022, the Government launched its new pilot in the family courts in North Wales and Dorset. The aim of the project is to “improve information sharing between agencies such as the police, local authorities and the courts.” It forms part of the government’s plans to reform the way family courts operate and is an extension to the Domestic Abuse Act 2021.

The pilot was introduced further to the June 2020 review of the family courts in private children cases, highlighting problems such as allegations of domestic abuse being ignored, dismissed or not believed, traumatic court process and children’s voices not being heard, and inadequate assessment of risk and perpetrators exercising control of victims through repeat litigation.

There is of course a framework in place designed to prevent some of these issues, found in Practice Direction 12J of the Family Procedure Rules 2010. These set out the rules the courts must follow in domestic abuse cases, which includes a bar on perpetrators cross-examining victims. Unfortunately, evidence from the review found that PD12J is often not implemented as intended and it there needed to be a more robust and comprehensive structure centred around victims and children.

As part of the reform Judges will now have the power to intervene in cases of domestic abuse to prevent the victim from being aggressively questioned by their perpetrator and can even arrive to court via a separate entrance. The Act will further prevent victims from being repeatedly brought back to court, which can be a form of continuing domestic violence.

More importantly, these changes will provide children with a voice and a platform from which to be heard at every stage of the process. The review found significant failings in relation to how children are represented and the Court’s lack of input and a reliance on Cafcass or social worker investigations.

Children’s views will now be taken into account when decisions are made about their futures and give them more opportunities to explain how they feel and, following a court order, to say whether it works for them.

So, what does the pilot actually do?

  1. It allows judges to review all of the information gathered by the parties, and
  2. Request more documentation before the case gets to the Courtroom.

Implementing the above steps would avoid a situation where lengthy and sensitive debates are being carried out in the Courtroom resulting in further acrimony between parties during what is already a highly strung, sensitive and emotional time for them. The hope is that this will enable proceedings to be less adversarial. This will also provide more opportunities for investigations to be carried out in addressing the allegations of domestic violence and other harmful behaviours, whilst avoiding any further harm to victims and children.

Fundamentally, the reform will affect how the court hears cases. An investigative approach will be trialled as part of the Integrated Domestic Abuse Courts pilot and will consider family and criminal matters alongside each other, which will provide a more consistent support for victims. The focus will be on finding the root of an issue and ensuring all parties are safe and able to provide evidence on an “equal footing”. Judges will now be able to investigate and address allegations of domestic abuse with the opportunity to review information and request documentation before the case gets to court.

The process:

  1. Agencies will firstly gather information and assess whether there are any concerns regarding a child or person involved in the case in respect of substance misuse, domestic abuse or other welfare issues.
  2. There will then be a hearing to determine if other interventions might assist the case, for example for parties to attend meditation out of court or programmes such as Separated Parents programmes. Out of court initiatives such as these take away the sometimes aggressive and confrontational nature of litigation and aim to focus on the victim or child in a more holistic and emotionally supportive environment, something IBB wholly encourages.

Is there a follow up? Yes.  The plan is for there to be a review carried out between 3-months and 1- year after a ruling is made. In most cases the court and agencies will carry out reviews to ensure the decisions that were made are working well for all parties concerned. This would include assessing whether court orders are being followed and/or whether additional support is necessary. Children will be included in the review process, giving them the opportunity to explain how they feel once a court order is made.

It provides victims with the safety net where matters are returned to court on a mandatory basis and does not shut the door to those who cannot afford to return to court, the onus to bring a case back to the court will no longer be on the victim.

As stated by Justice Minister Lord Wolfson QC: “These pilots will help ensure victims of domestic abuse aren’t further traumatised by the court process and that better decisions are made about their and their children’s lives”.

Speak to our Family Law specialists should you require any help and advice.

Sonal Parekh is a solicitor in the Family team and can be contacted on sonal.parekh@ibblaw.co.uk or 01494 790029