Women’s Aid welcomes recommendations for Family Courts

Women’s Aid has welcomed the recommendations for changes to rules concerning cross-examination of an alleged victim of domestic violence.

The review, headed by Mr Justice Cobb, looked at Practice Direction 12J FPR 2010, Child Arrangement and Contact Order: Domestic Violence and Harm.

It follows a report by Women’s Aid which found that 25 per cent of survivors of domestic abuse who had recently been though the Family Courts had been cross-examined by their former partner.

Among the key revisions are:

  • Paragraph 4 has been re-worked to go some way to addressing one of the main concerns of Women’s … that the presumption contained in section 1(2A) of the Children Act 1989 operates to require ‘contact at all costs’ in all cases, without a proper evaluation of the risk of harm from domestic abuse; therefore, where the involvement of a parent in a child’s life would place the child or other parent at risk of suffering harm from abuse, it is suggested that the presumption would be displaced;
  • Family Court judges should be sure that they understand the new offence of coercion (“controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship”) which was introduced in the Serious Crime Act 2015 and which came into force in December 2015; this may be a training issue for the Judicial College;
  • Paragraph 10 includes a proposal for the courts to consider more carefully the waiting arrangements at court prior to the hearing, and arrangements for entering and exiting the court building; Women’s Aid reports that 55% of women respondents to their recent survey (2015) who had been to the Family Courts had no access to any special measures. 39% were physically abused by their former partner in the family court. The APPG report speaks of women commonly being followed, stalked, harassed and further traumatised after leaving court;
  • Paragraph 28 has been amended to afford further protection for the alleged victim of abuse from cross-examination by an alleged unrepresented perpetrator;
  • Paragraph 33 recommends that in a case where domestic abuse has been proved, a court shall obtain a safety and risk assessment conducted by a specialist domestic abuse practitioner working for an appropriately accredited agency; this ties in with paragraph 38 (addressing the second of the specific recommendations of the APPG) that where a risk assessment has concluded that a parent poses a risk to a child or to the other parent, contact via a supported contact centre, or contact supervised by a parent or relative, is not appropriate;
  • Greater consistency and clarity of language has been introduced, by adopting a common test of ‘protection from risk of harm’; ‘harm’ itself is now specifically defined within the Practice Direction, adopting the language of section 31(9) of the Children Act 1989.

Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said: “We welcome this landmark opportunity to improve guidance for family judiciary in such cases. We urge the Family Procedure Rule Committee, and Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Liz Truss MP, to agree the new Practice Direction, with all of the changes set out by Mr Justice Cobb, without delay.”