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Abuse survivors “re-victimised” through family court process

22nd Jan 2016

A national charity has recommended that victims of domestic abuse should not endure the trauma of being cross-examined by their abusers in court.

Women’s Aid’s report, Nineteen Child Homicides, tells the stories of 19 children who were killed by a parent who was also a perpetrator of domestic abuse, in circumstances relating to child contact.

The charity stated that cases it reviewed between January 2005 to August 2015 “demonstrate failings that need to be addressed to ensure that the family courts, Child and Family Courts Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), children’s social work and other bodies actively minimise the possibility of further harm to women and children”.

The report notes that the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which came into force in April 2013, was one of the “major” changes to the family justice system which “compound the barriers often faced by survivors of domestic abuse and the increasingly complex and arduous routes to safe child contact.”

The act has “severely curtailed eligibility for legal aid in private family law cases”, the report states, as:

“Although legal aid is available for court proceedings where a party can produce specified evidence of domestic abuse (referred to as the Domestic Violence Gateway), there are many cases in which the necessary evidence under the [gateway] is either unavailable or unobtainable, so that victims of domestic abuse disputing contact are forced to become litigants in person.

As a consequence of this, “survivors find themselves being cross-examined by the perpetrator of domestic abuse, or by the perpetrator’s barrister, and they may also have to cross-examine the perpetrator themselves” which “leaves women in a very vulnerable position where they may not be able to have access to a fair hearing.”

Women’s Aid chief executive Polly Neate said there was a “misguided belief” within the family courts and among judges that “because a relationship has ended, so has the domestic abuse”, and that whilst protection measures were in place in the criminal courts to give victims “fair” access to justice, “This is not the case in the family courts.”

The charity recommends that the Ministry of Justice and family court judiciary ensure domestic abuse survivors representing themselves in court as litigants in person “will not be questioned by their abuser, or in turn have to question their abuser”.

The charity has also unveiled a new campaign, entitled ‘Child First’, calling on the family courts and government to put children’s’ safety “back at the heart of all decisions made by the family court judiciary”.