News: Family Courts Domestic Abuse Review Announced By Government

Ministers announce expert review of protection of children and parents in domestic abuse and serious offences cases in the family courts. Emily Landale explains the announcement.

Emily Landale

Ministers announced on the 21st May 2019 that a panel of experts will be tasked with reviewing how the family courts protect children and parents in cases of domestic abuse and other serious offences.

The project will last three months and is intended to ensure that the family courts are putting the interests of the child – their safety, health and wellbeing – at the forefront of their work.

The panel will be chaired by the MOJ and will consist of a range of experts including members of the judiciary, academics and charities. The panel will launch a call for input from the public, asking those who have direct experience of the system to share their experiences.

This project arises out of responses received within the government’s domestic abuse consultation. Concerns were raised about the courts’ response to potential harm to children and witnesses. Concerns go beyond a call for better protection for children. There are also claims that domestic abuse witnesses are being further harmed by the court system.

Ministers will investigate how existing safeguards are working in practice, and if necessary, will make changes to strengthen them.

Paul Maynard, Justice Minister said –

“Some of the most vulnerable in our society come before the family courts, and I am absolutely determined that we offer them every protection. This review will help us better understand victims’ experiences of the system and make sure the family court is never used to coerce or re-traumatise those who have been abused. Its findings will be used to inform next steps so we can build on the raft of measures we have already introduced to protect victims of domestic abuse”.

The project will:

  1. Examine the application of Practice Direction 12J
  2. Examine the use of ‘barring orders’
  3. Gather evidence of the impact on the child and the alleged victim where contact is sought by someone who is alleged to have, or has, committed domestic abuse or other relevant offences.

There will be consideration of how the family courts deal with a range of serious offences, such as rape, child abuse, assault, sexual assault and other violent crimes. These considerations will inform the protections put in place for victims and their children.

The project builds upon the draft Domestic Abuse Bill that was published in January. The bill includes measures that will prevent abusers from directly cross-examining their victims in family courts.

In response to that announcement –

A group of family and human rights lawyers have written to Justice Ministers calling for an independent inquiry into the treatment of domestic abuse in the family courts. The letters state that the 3-month project that has been announced is not sufficient for a proper evaluation of the reasons “why the system is currently placing children and victims at unacceptable risk”.

The group have developed a twelve-point plan of possible improvements that they suggest be considered by the inquiry.

It suggests – “

  1. Improved procedures for early notification and identification of abuse within the wider definition
  2. Triaging of domestic abuse cases to be undertaken by an independent body properly qualified to understand and identify abuse and risk.
  3.  A review of whether the current approach to fact-finding hearings (including decisions by courts on whether to hold a fact-finding hearing, the fact-finding hearings themselves and what happens after findings are made or not made) is the best approach for survivors of domestic abuse and children.
  4. Fast-tracking cases with disputed allegations of domestic abuse to a fact-finding hearing so the nature, extent and impact of the abuse can be identified. Where findings of domestic abuse are made, decisions made by judges following findings of domestic abuse should prioritise child safety and take into account risk assessments completed by accredited domestic abuse experts. Sufficient resources will need to be made available for risk assessments.
  5. The fact finding must offer a fair process with:
    a. A consistent national approach to special measures

    b. Legal aid for both parties where financially eligible up to the conclusion of the hearing

    c. National guidelines for timely police disclosure

    d. A domestic abuse coordinator in each court appointed in order to specifically ensure that victims going through the court process are properly protected and all necessary measures are in place, to try to minimise the risk of further abuse through the court process.
  • Explore alternative justice models for domestic abuse cases, for example:

• Specialist domestic violence problem solving courts similar to the FDAC model adopting a multi-agency approach to domestic abuse.

• Trauma informed models such as the approach taken by the Family Violence Courts Division of the Magistrates Court of Victoria, Australia).

• Involving independent domestic violence advisors and independent domestic violence advocates during the process to assist the court and survivors.

– Specialist domestic violence problem solving courts similar to the FDAC model adopting a multi-agency approach to domestic abuse.

• Trauma informed models such as the approach taken by the Family Violence Courts Division of the Magistrates Court of Victoria, Australia).

• Involving independent domestic violence advisors and independent domestic violence advocates during the process to assist the court and survivors.

  •  There should be a court recorder collating data which is made publicly available and reporting good and bad practice to the Domestic Abuse Commissioner to embed better practice and instill greater confidence in the court process.
  • Where domestic abuse is established (through a fact-finding hearing or otherwise) protective measures must be considered expeditiously.
  • Training for the judiciary to better understand domestic abuse, particularly the nuances and subtleties of abuse such as gas lighting, coercive control, and financial abuse especially apparent when hidden by a polite, non-threatening perpetrator. Input from psychologists in this regard is key.
  • More accredited perpetrator programmes which should be both clearly accessible and better resourced so that if a referral is made the outcomes are easier to predict and timescales are clear in order for sensible case management to take place.
  • Both survivors and perpetrators spend too long waiting for support or change programs. This wait impacts the process and prejudices children who are denied a safe relationship, if one can happen, or the security of knowing that an unsafe contact will not occur.
  • Legal aid for early legal advice needs to be reintroduced for ALL separating parents who are financially eligible. Cases that do not involve domestic abuse or safeguarding issues could then be diverted from the court system to mediation.”

The letter goes on to propose that PD 12J is enacted by the Domestic Abuse Bill and that decision making made by the judge is recorded and collated by an appointed court recording officer. Then they say, there can begin to be an assessment of the scale of the problem, and an understanding of how the problem can be dealt with.


Emily Landale is a second-six pupil at Central Chambers. Her pupil supervisor is Kirstin Beswick.

Her pupillage is a mix of criminal and family practice and Emily takes instructions in both areas of practice.

For all family law enquiries, please contact our Family Clerk, Kate Smith by calling 0161 2361133 or email kate.smith@centralchambers.co.uk

For criminal law enquiries, please contact Jayne Lever or Neil Vickers (Senior Clerks) on 0161 23611133 or clerks@centralchambers.co.uk

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