Domestic abuse is “systematically minimised” in family courts, with allegations being “ignored, dismissed or disbelieved”, according to a report.
Perpetrators continued to “control” their victims by being allowed to repeatedly drag them back into court, a Government-commissioned panel of experts also said.
The findings have prompted ministers to pledge a raft of “sweeping” reforms to tackle the problems, including committing to carrying out an urgent review of “pro-contact culture” and laws which presume that a parent’s involvement in their child’s life is beneficial.
Charity and judiciary representatives, lawyers and academics considered the views of 1,200 members of the public and organisations as they looked at how the family court system treats victims and children.
Last year 54,920 private law cases under the Children Act were started in the family courts.
The hearings are “often highly emotive” and usually involve some of the most vulnerable people in society.
Estimates indicate domestic abuse played a part in between 49% and 62% of a sample of cases launched to establish arrangements for, or contact with, children.
While there were “widespread good intentions from those working under increasing pressure”, the report reveals “deep-seated and systematic issues that were found to affect how risk to both children and adults is identified and managed”.
The report said: “Submissions highlighted a feeling that abuse is systematically minimised, ranging from children’s voices not being heard, allegations being ignored, dismissed or disbelieved, to inadequate assessment of risk, traumatic court processes, perceived unsafe child arrangements and abusers exercising continued control through repeat litigation and the threat of repeat litigation.”
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.
Nicki Norman, acting chief executive at Women’s Aid, said the report was “a major step forward in exposing what women and children experiencing domestic abuse have been telling us for decades” but added that it “must now deliver change”.
Sarah Green, director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, described the findings as “upsetting to read” but praised the “authoritative” report.
Domestic abuse commissioner Nicole Jacobs, who said problems in family courts “are the single most common concern raised with me”, also welcomed the findings.
As well as calling for an urgent review of presumption of parental involvement under the Children Act 1989 to address its “detrimental effects”, the report made a string of recommendations including the need to address security at courts and improve communication across the justice system.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said there would be a “major overhaul” of how family courts deal with victims, allowing them separate entrances to buildings and waiting rooms and automatic entitlement to special measures during proceedings like being able to stand behind a screen so as not to see their abuser when giving evidence.
Judges will also be given stronger powers to stop abusers taking out repeated litigation against victims.
A pilot of a combined domestic abuse court, considering family and criminal matters in parallel, is also being carried out.
Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the Family Division, said the report produced “significant and illuminating evidence” on the barriers to justice for victims.
Justice minister Alex Chalk said: “This 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.”