Sarah Evans of Coodes Solicitors’ Family Team welcomes changes to the family courts, which are designed to help protect partners and their children from domestic abuse.
In October 2017, important changes came into family courts in England and Wales to help protect partners and their children against domestic abuse. The changes are designed to help safeguard children and additionally to prevent any victim of abuse being cross examined in court by their alleged abuser.
Perhaps the most significant change is that the Family courts must now very carefully consider whether or not there should be contact between a child and a perpetrator of domestic abuse. The new guidance makes it clear that Judges ought not to order contact before this has been very carefully assessed and explored. Whilst Practice Direction 12J, which sets out the guidance the court ought to follow in these type of cases, has been in place for some years, the language used has been considerably strengthened by these recent changes.
Before the recent change, orders for contact were sometimes put in place and then later found to be entirely unsafe. Indeed, Women’s Aid has said that 20 children have been killed by a parent who was a known perpetrator of domestic abuse. Most of these cases followed a court order meaning the children had to have contact visits or even live with an abusive parent. The changes aim to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
I have recently been involved with cases where parents making allegations of abuse have told me they feel far safer knowing contact will not be arranged between their former partner and children until matters have been carefully assessed. They feel confident knowing that the changes acknowledge that domestic abuse between partners is harmful to children.
Of course there may well be cases where the partner is subsequently found to have not perpetrated any abuse at all and will have lost possibly months of contact with his or her children. This is a very unfortunate consequence and undeniably a break in contact between a parent and their children can be harmful, upsetting and confusing for the children involved. My view, however, is that the courts must err on the side of caution to protect children and victims of abuse alike where abuse is suspected.
Another fundamental change in the guidance is that alleged abusers are now, largely, prevented from cross examining a former partner in court. A cross examination can last for hours and is often highly stressful. Previously abusers have used this as an opportunity to abuse their victim further. Now the Judge is asked to consider conducting such a hearings as an ‘inquisitorial’ or ‘investigative’ process where the Judge themselves conducts the questioning rather than the parties. This is a key change to protect victims during the court process and one which has been readily adopted by the courts in my experience.
Sarah Evans works closely with a number of organisations supporting victims of domestic abuse including the Susie Project and Independent Domestic Violence Advocates. For more information or advice on divorce or any Family matters, contact Sarah Evans in the Family Team at Coodes Solicitors on 01579 347600 or firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also download our Guide to Ending Domestic Abuse.