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Problems with family courts exposed

Impact case study for REF 2021: Law (UoA 18)

It was uncomfortable viewing. One July evening last year, about 400,000 Channel 4 viewers switched on to disturbing scenes of four police forcibly removing small children from their bedrooms in a night-time raid.

Still in their pyjamas, the terrified children were kicking and screaming as police took them from their mother’s house to go to live with their father. Why? The officers were carrying out an order by the family court.

Powerful stuff. Those were the opening scenes of a harrowing exposé by the broadcaster’s flagship news programme, Dispatches, in its episode Torn Apart: Family Courts Uncovered.

The show, two years in the making, drew a massive response, generating reams of national news coverage. It was shortlisted for the British Journalism Awards 2021.

Family courts and domestic abuse specialist, Dr Adrienne Barnett, was interviewed on the show. Programme-makers used online surveys to ask people working in family courts and people using them about their experiences of the courts. More than 4,000 people responded, making it the largest-ever survey of family courts. Dr Barnett, a senior lecturer in law at Brunel University London and former barrister with over 25 years’ experience of family law, was commissioned to prepare the reports on the surveys and is analysing the qualitative data.

DispatchesTorn Apart is only one example of how Dr Barnett has changed public opinion, shaped the political agenda and changed laws and legal practice to help domestic abuse survivors and their children.

Dr Barnett played a pivotal part in Women’s Aid’s Child First campaign, which sparked an emergency Government review to ban abusers from cross-examining their victims in court. Aimed at preventing avoidable child deaths and making family courts put children first, the campaign also brought changes in practice to make family courts safer for survivors and children. Child First stemmed from the charity’s Nineteen Child Homicides report (2016) which highlights the tragic stories of 19 children and two women who were killed by domestic abusers where there was unsafe child contact. It draws extensively from Dr Barnett’s study, Contact At All Costs? Domestic Violence and Children’s Welfare.

Judges and professionals did not understand the scale and seriousness of domestic abuse, Dr Barnett’s research reveals, especially when it involves coercive and controlling behaviour. They made poor and dangerous judgements about risk and prioritised contact between children and parents who live away, in spite of their abuse convictions, as that haunting opening Dispatches sequence goes to show.

In May 2019, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announced an inquiry into how the family court protects children and parents in private law children cases involving concerns about domestic abuse. To assist the inquiry, the MoJ commissioned Dr Barnett to prepare a review of the available literature on these issues. The findings showed that abuse is systematically minimised, leading to traumatic court processes, inadequate assessment of risk and unsafe child arrangements, with allegations being ignored or disbelieved, children left unheard and abusers exercising continued control through repeat litigation.

The government immediately announced a 'major overhaul of family courts to protect domestic abuse victims'.

This report lays bare many hard truths about long-standing failings, but we are determined to drive the fundamental change necessary to keep victims and their children safe.

The Justice Minister

The changes occasioned by the MoJ panel report and literature review were widely heralded in the national media as the most sweeping overhaul of the family courts to protect victims of domestic abuse.

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Project last modified 11/05/2022