Published: 30th January 2017
Senior UK judges are taking steps to ensure that fathers with a history of domestic violence will not be automatically entitled to have contact with their child. In cases where the father has been proven to have a history of domestic violence, the safety of the child and mother would be considered and the father would not be granted access to their child. The aim is to endthe general presumption that a father must be given contact with their child, even if their history poses a risk to both mother and child.
The family courts are set to see the changes introduced after the charity ‘Women’s Aid’ found that 19 children have died after being subjected to violence bytheir father after contact was awarded by a judge. The investigation has encouraged the new changes, which include a demand for all of the judiciary to be further trained on domestic violence, and for them to ensure that they protect women and children.
After talks with ‘Women’s Aid’, Mr Justice Cobb announced that the changes were to be made: ‘It is indeed most disturbing to note that for at least 12 children, of the 19 children killed... contact with the perpetrator was arranged through the family courts. For six families, this contact was arranged in family court hearings, and for one family, contact was decided as part of the arrangements for a non-molestation order and occupational order.’
After reporting in 2016 on the specific murders of these children, ‘Women’s Aid’ have since identified that, after being given contact with his child via the family courts, another father with a history of violence has murdered his child. The charity is set to present their updated report to the Prime Minister imminently.
Mr Justice Cobb also believes that the practice of giving violent abusers the opportunityto cross-examine their victims in court hearings should be ended, a change that would see the family courts fall in line with the criminal courts. He suggested that ‘decisive action to cure this deeply unsatisfactory situation’ was needed. Cobb recently received significant backing after the President of the family division, Sir James Munby, endorsed the reforms.
The amendments to the judicial guidance, practice direction 12J, include a key change that would see historically violent fathers refused contact with their child, despite the general consensus being that there should always be at least some form of contact. It was also said that many perpetrators use the courts as a way of continuing the abuse, and judges should therefore be more alert to this. Cobb said ‘Family court judges should be sure that they understand the new offence of coercion.’
The director of ‘Women’s Aid’, Polly Neate, commented: ‘There should never be a presumption of contact where one parent is known to be a perpetrator of domestic abuse, as is made clear today. We urge the Family Procedure Rule Committee, and Lord Chancellor and secretary of state for justice, Liz Truss MP, to agree the new practice direction, with all of the changes set out by Mr Justice Cobb, without delay.’
Sir James Munby suggested that austerity measures have decreased the ability of the courts to protect vulnerable witnesses. He also said that, even in his own court in the Royal Courts of Justice in London, there is no safe waiting room or 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, indeed to match the facilities and “kit” available in the crown court.’
Mr Justice Cobb reiterated that it is essential for judges of the family court to use the practice direction exactly as it had been changed. ‘By this report, I wish to highlight the concerns raised by Rights of Women, Women’s Aid… I hope that positive steps can now be taken to address in the family court the problem, long since addressed in the criminal court, of the alleged victims of domestic abuse being directly questioned by their unrepresented alleged abusers.’
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