Family Courts System

The family courts are an essential part of our legal justice system. It helps to ensure the safety of our children, and who and when and how access is given to them. But when this system breaks down, for survivors of domestic abuse, this feels like abuse all over again. We must recognise that this needs to change.

In May 2019, the Victoria Derbyshire show spoke to women about their experience of the family courts system and how, in one woman’s case, its neglect and inadequacy led to her ex-abusive partner killing her two children. Claire Throssell talks about how, despite her assertions that her ex was capable of doing exactly that, there was a court order in place stipulating 5 hours access. Claire was one of many survivors who came forward to discuss the harrowing experience of having a system fail so abysmally to protect the vulnerable that it is there to keep safe. One woman detailed how “you just have to put a smile on your face and hand them over to their abuser”.

Mums In Need is no stranger to the difficulties and unreliability of the family justice system. Our service users recognise their own similar struggles to those outlined on the Victoria Derbyshire programme. Former volunteer Marianne recently conducted interviews with these service users as part of her research into potential policy changes, and talked to our mums about the family justice system, finding claims sadly all too similar. One service user, Maria*, talks about her experience as Marianne writes it below. (This information can also be found as part of Marianne’s report in our ‘Campaigning and Advocacy’ section)

“The role of Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service), as described in the consultation response, is “to provide the court with the information needed for a safe decision to be made about arrangements for whom the child should live or spend time with”. In the safeguarding interview that Maria had with her FCA (Family Court Advisers working for Cafcass), she explicitly told them that there were six findings of physical and mental abuse against her ex-partner but she felt that this “made no difference at all” to the way she was interviewed or the outcome. Maria explained that she was concerned about her ex-partner excessively smacking their children, on one occasion to the extent that her young daughters left the house at night to alert a neighbour. The safeguarding letter resulting from this interview stated: “we have no concerns and we should not be involved”. Furthermore, the FCA wrote that the physical abuse was “situational” and that Maria had provoked her ex-partner by reacting submissively when he got angry.”

Fit for Purpose Policies: Improving Support for Mothers who have Experienced Coercive Control, A report by Mums In Need, prepared by Marianne Quinn

Not only was the clear evidence of danger to the safety of her children ignored, but Maria, shockingly was deemed responsible for her own physical assault, in a truly outrageous display of victim blaming. If a child is struck with enough fear to warrant them leaving their home at night to secure the protection of a neighbour from an abusive parent, their welfare must be considered at risk. And when a person is physically assaulted, there is no “situational” factor that can ever make it that person’s fault. The actions of the family court system via Cafcass in this instance, which we will find is not an isolated one, are inexcusable and their negligence in the protection of Maria and her family is obvious.

A similar experience is also detailed on the Victoria Derbyshire programme about Mary* who, not unreasonably, hoped that the courts would be able to see that if they had to facilitate the relationship between her abusive ex and their children, contact needed to be supervised. What Mary actually found was that her ex was granted regular, unsupervised overnight contact with her children. Her solicitor advised her that “unless he’s beaten you black and blue, he’ll be deemed a good enough father. Don’t even bother trying.”

The reality of these findings is alarming and must be remedied, and hopefully in the very near future. In May this year, over 120 MPs across all parties backed an inquiry into the family justice system and how it treats survivors of rape and abuse. 30 industry professionals also wrote a letter to justice secretary, David Gauke, imploring him to upgrade the departmental review. Within the letter, coercive control is isolated as a specific issue as it states:

“The impact of coercive control, emotional abuse, economic abuse and other forms of non-physical violence are routinely overlooked. Twelve weeks is not enough time to properly evaluate the reasons why the system is currently placing children and victims at unacceptable risk. Any inquiry must be independent if justice is to be seen to be done.”

Family Courts Failing Victims of Abuse and Rape, say Experts Calling for Inquiry, by Owen Bowcott, The Guardian

Although coercive control became illegal in England and Wales in 2015, domestic abuse is still not regarded with the severity in people’s minds that it warrants. As detailed in a BBC article in May, we find clear examples of domestic abuse not attracting its true gravity, even with industry professionals whose knowledge and experience is imperative to justice being found. The article states:

“Barrister Charlotte Proudman, who specialises in cases involving violence against women, told the BBC she had witnessed a perception that mothers were preventing contact with fathers without good reason. “I’ve heard judges say, ‘Oh, it’s just a little bit of domestic violence.’ It’s minimised rather than seeing the significance of that,” she added.”

Call for Inquiry into Abusive Parents’ Access to Children, by Emma Ailes and Jessica Furst, BBC News

Mums In Need understands the difficulties of navigating your way through a system which often feels irreparably unjust. But your voices are being heard- by us, by our political representatives- and we will ensure that the fight for your support within this area and every area continues. This call for an inquiry into the system provides us with at least the hope that things will improve, and the support of over 120 MPs and representation on shows like Victoria Derbyshire proves that your stories are not ignored.

*This name has been changed for safeguarding purposes.