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Domestic Abuse and The Family Courts

There are times when even their strongest critics have to admit that MPs earn their salaries. One example was a debate held last week before the House recessed for the party conferences.  Led by Angela Smith, the MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, they debated how the Family Law Courts handle cases of domestic abuse and the issue of continuing access to their children by the abusing parent.

Ms Smith told a horrific story of Claire, a constituent who had left the marital home after violent abuse. Tragically, her husband had been given access to his sons and he burnt them alive in the house after cancelling the house insurance. Claire was left shattered by the loss of her boys, her home and everything she owned. Lovingly, the people of Penistone, led by the vicar, raised enough money to buy her somewhere to live but nothing would bring back her children.

The point of the story is that the Family Court had given the husband access to his sons on the assumption that an abusive husband could still be a good father. Subsequent contributions to the debate revealed this was not an isolated example.  A survey by Women’s Aid in 2015 reported that in 76% of cases they studied, the abusive father had been given access to their children even though they had witnessed the abuse of their mothers. Other research shows that children in abusive families can themselves become psychologically damaged even if they are not physically abused. Some become aggressive whilst others become withdrawn, anxious and fearful. The NSPCC reports that 20% of children in the UK who have witnessed domestic abuse experience developmental problems and learning difficulties. SafeLives say that two-thirds of these children are directly harmed. Worse still were the murders of 19 children by abusive parents most of whom were already known to the police.

Keith Starmer MP, a former Director of Public Prosecutions, observed that whilst the criminal courts had made real progress in protecting vulnerable witnesses, the Family Courts have not. An abused wife could still be cross-examined in the Court room by her violent and controlling husband.  Sometimes the men seek to do this even when they have no prospect of success merely to continue harassing and controlling their victims. One woman who had been raped, beaten and abused over a six year period by her partner was interrogated by him for three hours in the court. Action by a senior member of the judiciary is needed to propose a ‘strike-out’ procedure that does not require the abuse victim to go to court to show that the abusers petition is vexatious. Provision should also be made for abused wives to give evidence remotely to avoid being bullied by their abusive partner in the court room. Separate waiting rooms should be the norm. Research found that 39% of the women were verbally or physically abused by their former partner on the Family Court premises.

There is an obvious need for the training of lawyers and court officials in the Family Courts to prevent victims of abuse being further harmed in what are supposed to be courts of justice. There is an even more basic need for relational education in schools to prepare young people for respectful and healthy relationships in later life. Grandparents can also act if they suspect domestic abuse of their children or grandchildren. Churches can also offer a refuge for victims of abuse in their neighbourhood.

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