On May 21st 2019, ministers announced that a panel of experts would review “how the family courts protect children and parents in cases of domestic abuse and other serious offences”. But why has this review been called, what exactly will it cover, and will it be of any tangible benefit to the public good?
This review was announced shortly after a Victoria Derbyshire show report uncovered that in the last five years at least four children had been killed by parents to whom the family courts had granted contact. It also indicated that another four children had been sexually abused and/or seriously injured. Following this, more than 123 MPs wrote to the government to request an inquiry "to establish the extent of the problem and if more fundamental reform is required".
The government have announced that the review will be conducted by a panel of experts (including academics, charities and senior members of the judiciary) chaired by the Ministry of Justice. According to the official government release, “the panel will consider how the family courts handle a range of offences including rape, child abuse, sexual assault, murder and other violent crime, with the government committed to ensuring the right protections are in place for victims and their children.” It specifically aims to examine:
· The court’s application of Practice Direction 12J; this sets out what is necessitated in court cases where domestic abuse is alleged or admitted, and applies to any application pertaining to children where allegations have been made that a party or child has experienced domestic abuse.
· The court’s application of ‘barring orders’; these stop further allegations being made without the court’s permission under the Children Act 1989.
· The impact on the child and victim where child contact is sought by someone alleged to have, or who has, committed domestic abuse or other relevant offences.
They have also made a public call for evidence so that those who have experience of relevant cases can share their experiences.
However, there has been serious debate as to what this review will realistically be able to achieve.
On the positive side, Lucy Hadley, Campaigns and Public Affairs Officer at Women’s Aid (a charity which has been at the forefront of campaigning this issue), has welcomed the review as a signifier of the government’s official recognition of the problem. Louise Haigh, MP and Shadow Policy Minister, has also expressed happy surprise that the government has made an official response.
But this seems to be the extent of the positives. On a follow-up episode of Victoria Derbyshire’s show, four main issues were identified by the interviewees (Louise Haigh, Lucy Hadley and Sir Paul Coleridge – former High Court Judge, now Chair of the Marriage Foundation):
1. The review will be chaired by the Ministry of Justice, but the panel should be independent and preferably include ‘survivors’.
2. It is feared that the review will not be able to accomplish anything substantial in three months. This brevity risks the review simply repeating the findings of other similarly short investigations.
3. Asking for survivor experiences is useful, but it needs to be accompanied by thorough data analysis, which has not been assured.
4. The problems are wider than this specific issue.
This last point seems to be the biggest problem. Since legal aid funding was cut in 2012, there has been a huge rise in the number of litigants in person, with consequences for how cases are managed. Research conducted in 2015 by Citizens Advice stated, “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.” Furthermore, social workers are overloaded, meaning that they have little time to properly evaluate each individual case. There are also not enough judges and not enough courts, which prevents, as barrister Sarah Phillimore says, the courts from being able to provide judicial continuity and swift fact-finding hearings.
So while government action on this issue is to be welcomed, there are concerns voiced that the review risks being labelled mere “lip service” in the response to the public outcry. We can only hope that it delivers more than this.
18 June 2019