Domestic Abuse And The Family Court: Progress Made But More Required
Published on 06 September, 2023 | Jodi Ford
That family courts across England and Wales handle a very large case load is by now accepted without dispute.
Many individuals in government and the judiciary have already remarked on the impact which the volume of work has on the speed with which often very sensitive matters can be resolved.
At the end of June, for example, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) released figures showing that private law matters involving children which were resolved in the first three months of this calendar year had taken 32 weeks to conclude on average – two weeks longer than equivalent cases during the same period in 2022 (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/family-court-statistics-quarterly-january-to-march-2023/family-court-statistics-quarterly-january-to-march-2023#children-act—private-law).
However, one of the challenges confronted by the courts is not just the number of matters which they are asked to adjudicate on but the variety of the cases which come before them.
One increasingly prominent aspect relates to domestic abuse.
Three years ago, the MoJ published a report examining the “risk of harm” to children and parents involved in private family law cases (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/895173/assessing-risk-harm-children-parents-pl-childrens-cases-report_.pdf).
It was an impressive piece of work and drew on the contributions of more than 1,200 individuals and organisations.
Domestic abuse formed one of the central themes. As a result, the Harm Panel report, as it became known, provided an important snapshot of how family courts “identify and respond to allegations of domestic abuse and other serious offences”.
One of its central recommendations was the creation of a team within the office of the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, to oversee and document how family courts deal with it.
In July, the Commissioner published her latest status report on the matter
As well as making a series of 10 recommendations about how the courts can best support victims of abuse involved in private law children’s cases – both adults and children alike – it also appears to amount to something of a break with previous practice in certain important regards.
Whereas abuse – be it physical, coercive or controlling behaviour – between partners is not always a bar to children spending time with a parent, the Commissioner’s report notes the lasting effects which it can have.
Such a determination potentially has a bearing on the sort of arrangements which are put in place.
Some, such as the MP Kate Kniveton, have also welcomed the publication and called on Government to support those subjected to domestic abuse through the justice system (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/10955840-24d0-11ee-8c1b-d5d52b458fbd?shareToken=44bd90ee5101e26f689608ad5a6aef75).
I agree that the suggestions which the Commissioner has made are perfectly sensible and helpful but that more can be done.
The question, I suppose, is who does what.
I have no doubt that ministers will in response be weighing up what possible next steps they might take, whether that is in the form of extra funding or legislation.
Sir Andrew McFarlane, the President of the Family Division of the High Court has recently announced the close of a lengthy period of domestic abuse training for his fellow family judges
He also outlined fresh guidance on how family courts should deal with applications for what are known as non-molestation orders.
They are one of a range of possible domestic abuse remedy orders which can be made by family courts to help applicants suffering violence or harassment.
The guidance, Sir Andrew has explained, “is to allow courts to deal efficiently with the growing number of such applications, whilst at the same time meeting the requirements of fairness and due process”.
Ministry of Justice data makes clear how urgently such clarity is needed. Non-molestation orders currently make up more than four-fifths of all domestic abuse remedy applications.
If we look at the official figures even more closely, we can see that both applications and orders have increased by 80 per cent in the course of the last decade.
That underlines why action capable of delivering real, practical benefits for families and the courts is critical.
It is disappointing to realise that domestic abuse is not going to simply disappear.
Finding an effective way to deal with it – and removing the threat posed by individuals who even attempt to controlling their former partners by dragging out the court process – should therefore remain a priority.