The government has promised a major overhaul of family courts after a damning report found domestic abuse victims were being “ignored, dismissed or disbelieved”.
Ministers will make it easier for judges to issue barring orders preventing abusers from repeatedly dragging their ex-partners back to court, which is used as a form of continuing domestic abuse.
Reforms will also see more victims given access to separate building entrances and waiting rooms, as well as protective screens to shield them from the alleged abuser in court, the Ministry of Justice said.
The move comes after an expert-led review into how the family courts handle domestic abuse and other serious offences, which raised concerns that victims and children were being put at unnecessary risk.
A survivor of domestic abuse told Sky News the measures were “well overdue” as she branded her experience in court “horrific”.
She said: “You’re constantly attacked… you’ve got your abuser sitting feet away from you and then you’ve got a barrister going: ‘You weren’t attacked, you’ve made up all these stories.’
“It’s tough. It’s really, really tough.”
The expert panel included representatives from charities, the judiciary and family law practitioners and considered the views of more than 1,200 members of the public and organisations.
They found submissions highlighted “a feeling that abuse is systematically minimised”, including “children’s voices not being heard” and “allegations being ignored, dismissed or disbelieved”.
The panel also found:
- Inadequate resources to keep up with the increasing demand of cases
- A lack of communication between different types of courts which led to “contradictory decisions and confusion”
- More parties coming to court unrepresented
- Victims facing a lack of understanding of types of abuse and the ongoing effects, as well as stereotypical views of how an “ideal victim” should behave
- Perpetrators being granted orders allowing them “frequently unrestricted” contact with children and “usually without requiring an alleged abuser to address their behaviour” which meant they “continued control”
Efforts to report continuing abuse were treated “dismissively by criminal justice and child welfare agencies because of family court orders”, according to the findings.
Justice minister Alex Chalk said the 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.”
He added: “Every day the family courts see some of the most vulnerable in society and we have a duty to ensure they are protected and not put in danger.
Nicki Norman, acting chief executive of Women’s Aid, said the report marks “a major step forward in exposing what women and children experiencing domestic abuse have been telling us for decades”.
She added: “The culture of disbelief identified by the panel is a barrier to courts making safe child contact arrangements in cases of domestic abuse.
“The result is that, all too often, survivors and their children experience the family courts as failing to effectively protect them.”