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Court rules on child contact with violent fathers to be changed

25th Jan 2017

Steps are being taken to end the presumption that a father must have contact with a child where there is evidence of domestic abuse that would put the child or mother at risk.

The reforms are to be introduced in the family courts after campaigning by the charity Women’s Aid, which identified that 19 children were killed in the last decade by their violent fathers after being given contact with them by judges.

The changes include a demand for all the judiciary to have further training on domestic violence, and to act to ensure women and children are protected.

Mr Justice Cobb announced the changes on Friday 20th January, and also called for an end to the cross-examination of domestic violence victims by alleged perpetrators in court hearings, a practice banned in the criminal court. Cobb’s reforms were endorsed by the President of the family division, Sir James Munby.

The changes are contained in amendments to judicial guidance known as practice direction 12J. A key change announced by Cobb was that the presumption in the family court that there should be “contact at all costs” with both parents should be excluded in domestic violence cases where involvement of a parent in a child’s life would place the child or other parent at risk of harm.

Cobb called for judges to be more alert to how perpetrators of domestic violence could use the access within the courts to assault their former partners, putting forward a proposal for courts to carefully consider the waiting arrangements prior to a hearing, and arrangements for entering and exiting the court building.

Munby pointed out that austerity measures had impacted on courts’ ability to protect vulnerable witnesses. He stated that in his own court in the Royal Courts of Justice in London, there was no safe waiting room and no video link.

“The problem, of course, is one of resources, and responsibility lies … ultimately with ministers. More, much more, needs to be done to bring the family courts up to an acceptable standard,” Munby said.

Polly Neate, director of Women’s Aid, welcomed the changes. She stated that “There should never be a presumption of contact where one parent is known to be a perpetrator of domestic abuse.”