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Court overhaul to protect domestic abuse survivors took in Brunel study

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Sweeping reforms to protect survivors and their children in family courts had advice from a Brunel Law School domestic abuse specialist.

The government has now promised a rapid re-think of ‘pro-contact’ culture, where authorities assume it is nearly always good for children to see their parent regularly.

They will also make it easier for judges to bar abusive exes from repeatedly dragging victims back to court – often used to control them.

These moves follow a Ministry of Justice inquiry into how family courts handle domestic abuse raised fears that victims and children were put at unnecessary risk.

“It highlighted the traumatic experiences victims of domestic abuse and children encounter in family courts, and the fundamental systemic barriers to respond effectively,” said Dr Adrienne Barnett.

Dr Barnett, whose review for the panel exposed major failings in the system, said that these problems are long-standing in the family courts in England and Wales. 

“It is a tragic indictment of the family court system that many victims of domestic abuse have experienced family court proceedings as being as bad as or worse than the abuse they sought to escape.

“It is hoped that the changes proposed by government will make this a thing of the past,” she said.

Other changes ordered by government in the wake of the Ministry of Justice report will prevent victims being cross-examined by their abusers and will create separate entrances, waiting rooms and screens to protect survivors. There are now plans to change the Domestic Abuse Bill to bring in these improvements.

Dr Barnett’s review revealed that victims did not feel safe at court and often found the court proceedings re-traumatising. 

Key findings include:

  • Domestic abuse in private law children cases features in 49% to 62% of cases, far higher than in the general population
  • Ongoing abuse after parental separation can leave survivors in a constant state of fear and can harm survivors’ and children’s recovery 
  • Child contact was highlighted as the key setting for potentially more serious abuse, including homicide, of mothers
  • Domestic abuse was marginalised, misunderstood and downgraded within private law children proceedings, which led to children not being heard, mothers being treated with hostility, and risk being inadequately assessed

Dr Barnett added: “There appears to be a distance to travel before a concrete appreciation of the power and control dynamics of domestic abuse, its consequences and effects, and the manipulative strategies of perpetrators is gained by all family courts and professionals.”

Dr Barnett’s review and the expert panel’s report, published by the Ministry of Justice on 25 June 2020, plus the government’s implementation plan are here.