March 24th, 2017
Domestic violence often hits the headlines and the majority of the time it is in relation to the women suffering abuse but as many people know, if there are children in the family, they suffer too.
Whilst Russia has just passed legislation to soften the penalties for perpetrators of domestic violence including that against children, 26,000 of whom are beaten by their parents every year the UK is moving in the opposite direction trying to ensure that the safety of children is paramount.
Women's Aid has presented a petition entitled Child First to the Prime Minister. The petition aims to make child contact safer for children after numerous child deaths “as a result of unsafe child contact with dangerous perpetrators of domestic violence”.
Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said:
“There is a misguided belief within the family courts and among judges that, because a relationship has ended, so has the domestic abuse. Survivors frequently report to us that they and their children are re-victimised and traumatised by their abusers, even after separation, through the family court process. This trauma makes it extremely difficult for the non-abusive parent to advocate clearly and effectively for the safety of their child. In the criminal courts, there are protection measures in place to give victims fair access to justice. This is not the case in the family courts. For example, it is common for victims of domestic abuse to be cross-examined by the perpetrator. This must end”.
“The desire by the family courts to treat parents in exactly the same way, and get cases over with quickly, blinds them to the consequences of unsafe child contact. As the report Nineteen Child Homicides shows, these consequences can be fatal. The culture of, ‘contact with the child, no matter what’, must end. Less than 1% of child contact applications are refused, but we know that domestic abuse features in around 70% of CAFCASS caseloads, and in 70-90% of cases going to the family courts. Clearly, the system is failing. The best interests of children should be the overriding principle of the family courts, but far too often this is simply not the case.”
It appears that the Family Courts are now listening as on the 19th January 2017 Mr Justice Cobb recommended, as part of his review of Practice Direction 12J that a number of revisions were made to the practice direction.
Practice Direction 12J applies to any family proceedings where the court considers that an order should be made:
The purpose of this Practice Direction is to set out what the Family Court should do:
that the child or a party has experienced domestic violence or abuse perpetrated by another party or that there is a risk of such violence or abuse.
The changes proposed to Practice Direction 12J are as follows:
Mr Justice Cobb commented that these changes are intended to improve the implementation of the Practice Direction and will help to ensure safety is at the heart of decisions made on child contact in the family courts.
Will this lead to spurious accusations of domestic violence being made so that contact can be withheld? Will some fathers believe they will automatically be denied contact over false allegations?
The flip side of this is that not all women report abuse. Statistics show that when they do, it is usually after they have suffered significant harm from their husbands/partners for a period of approximately:
With 62% of children living with domestic abuse being directly harmed by the perpetrator of the abuse, in addition to the harm caused by witnessing the abuse of others, surely non abusive fathers can see why such steps need to be taken?
Whose rights are more important? The parent? or those of the children?
Is it likely that contact would simply be denied immediately? Perhaps it is more likely that an assessment would need to be carried out? This has been suggested where domestic abuse has been proven but would determining whether there are any immediate child safety concerns as a priority, and utilising secure contact centres allowing the parent contact in a place of safety, be a possibility?
While many will argue that this is the role of Cafcass in their safeguarding report, often these hardly scratch the surface and with so much pressure on their service, it is hardly surprising that potential risks are missed.
The sad fact is, that children have been killed by a parent known to perpetrate domestic abuse and stringent safeguards may have saved them, the Women's Aid report ‘Nineteen Child Homicides’ details 19 such cases.
Hopefully with the changes to Practice Direction 12J reports of this kind will no longer need to be produced and the safety of children will be the most important factor in deciding contact and living arrangements.
If you have any concerns about any of the issues raised in this note please contact the writer.
 Russian Legal Information Agency http://rapsinews.com/legislation_news/20170127/277663883.html
 SafeLives (2015), Insights Idva National Dataset 2013-14. Bristol: SafeLives. http://safelives.org.uk/policy-evidence/about-domestic-abuse/who-are-victims-domestic-abuse
Julia began her legal career in 1988 when she started work for a company in Shropshire as a legal secretary. After taking a career break to have a family, moving back to Milton Keynes and then while raising her 2 daughters, Julia decided to study a law degree, part time, with the Open University. After completing her degree in 2008 Julia then went on to take her Legal Practice Course (LPC), part time, with the College of Law in Bloomsbury, London.
While undertaking her LPC Julia became a member of Resolution and also spent several years volunteering at Milton Keynes Citizens Advice Bureau as a generalist adviser.
Shortly after receiving a commendation for her LPC, Julia took a position at a small firm in Northamptonshire for a short time before joining Hawkins Family Law in October 2011. Julia has now moved into the post of trainee solicitor, is training under the supervision of the Directors of Hawkins Family Law and aims to qualify as a solicitor in 2018.
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