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Government promises overhaul of family courts

Government reforms announced today (25th June 2020) will see more victims of domestic abuse given access to separate building entrances and waiting rooms as well as protective screens to shield them from their alleged abuser in the family courts. 

It will also be made easier for judges to issue barring orders to prevent abusive ex-partners from repeatedly dragging their victims back to court – which can be used as a form of continuing domestic abuse. 

The move comes after an expert-led review into how the family courts handle domestic abuse, child sexual abuse and other serious offences raised concerns that women and children in particular were being put at unnecessary risk.

The expert panel was made up of representatives from specialist charities, the judiciary, family law practitioners and academia, and took the views of more than 1,200 individuals and organisations, including Rape Crisis England & Wales and its member Rape Crisis Centres.

The review highlighted the 'pro-contact culture' of the family court – in which courts place undue priority on ensuring contact with the non-resident parent, resulting in the systematic minimisation or disbelief of victims and survivors of domestic abuse, child sexual abuse and other serious offences. 

In response to this, Ministers have committed to implementing the panel's key recommendation to review the presumption of ‘parental involvement. It will examine whether the right balance is being struck between the risk of harm to children and their non-abusive parents, and the right of children to have a relationship with both parents.

Katie Russell, for Rape Crisis England & Wales, said:

"The quality of this report speaks to the importance of having review panels such as these filled with and led by experts in the field. This should be recognised as best practice for all Government reviews.

Rape Crisis is pleased to see the strong inclusion of child sexual abuse issues that come up in family courts within this report, and reference to the rape and sexual violence that so often takes place in domestic abuse situations, which is too little spoken about or acknowledged.

The Rape Crisis movement was glad to have the opportunity to contribute to this review and we're pleased to see in particular that one of our member Centres, CARA (Centre for Action on Rape and Abuse in Essex) has been quoted in it."

Helen Parr, Director of CARA said:

"For too many years we have been aware of cases in which children have made clear, sometimes graphic, disclosures of sexual abuse by their fathers in which the family court decision has been to order contact. 

In some cases involving very young children (who may not have the language to express themselves) this has been communicated through behaviour recognised to strongly indicate sexual abuse. 

We are extremely pleased to finally see our concerns that children’s voices are not being heard by the family court recognised in this report. We are particularly pleased by the report’s recommendation to urgently address the detrimental effects of the courts' current pro-contact culture.  

We hope that through these reforms future generations of children will be protected from sexual abuse.”

Find out more and download the full review.