The Ministry of Justice will convene a panel of experts for a three-month exercise to ensure the Family Court ‘works first and foremost in the explicit interests of the child’, prioritising their safety, health and wellbeing.
More than 120 MPs called for the Family Courts to be opened up to greater scrutiny and for those who father children through rape to be denied the opportunity to acquire parental rights. The MPs requested an independent inquiry into the way the Family Courts in England and Wales treat survivors of rape and domestic abuse and their children.
It follows a campaign by Sammy Woodhouse, a survivor of Rotherham’s child exploitation scandal, who has called for a change in the law after revealing the man who raped her as a teenager had been given a chance to play a role in her son’s life.
Rotherham Council had invited the man who raped her as a teenager to apply for Parental Responsibility when the child became the subject of Care Proceedings. Rotherham Council told Arshid Hussain – who was jailed for 35 years in 2016 – that he could seek visits from Woodhouse’s son as part of Family Court proceedings to take the child into care.
Under the Criminal Practice Directions, Councils applying for a Care Order for a child should tell “every person whom the applicant believes to be a party to pending relevant proceedings in respect of the same child; and every person whom the applicant believes to be a parent without [whether or not they have acquired] Parental Responsibility for the child”.
However, the Ministry of Justice said Local Authorities could apply to courts to request permission not to notify parents without Parental Responsibility about Care Proceedings. This provides no solution for the children whose absent parent has Parental Responsibility, and who must automatically be notified of such events, even though they may have been imprisoned for a very serious crime. Campaigners are currently pressing for an overhaul of the principle of the Children Act 1989 on this point.
Changes were made last year to make it easier for victims of domestic abuse to provide the evidence required to access Legal Aid. The time limit for all forms of evidence for domestic violence has also been removed.
£900,000 has been allocated in funding for specially trained staff to offer dedicated emotional and practical support to domestic abuse victims before, during and after Family Court hearings.
Funding of some £8 million is also to be made available to support children affected by domestic abuse.
The review follows concerns raised in its domestic abuse consultation about the Family Court’s response to potential harm to children and victims. Concerns were also raised that alleged perpetrators of domestic abuse were using the court system to re-traumatise their alleged victims.
The panel will examine Practice Directions relating to child arrangement cases where domestic abuse is a factor. They will also look at the court’s application of ‘barring’ orders, and look at the impact on the child where contact is sought by someone alleged to have, or who has, committed domestic abuse or other relevant offences.
The results of the review will build on the recent provisions of Practice Direction 12J which included measures to ban abusers from directly cross-examining their victims in family courts.
Hellen Williams viewpoint
Increasingly, the Government is becoming more aware of the need to provide additional protection and care for vulnerable individuals in these types of cases and I am pleased to see this development. It has been interesting to witness the rise of campaign groups seeking redress for parties and children in Family Court proceedings, seemingly augmented from various levels of social media; there is certainly strength in numbers.
As a result of this pressure, the courts are now beginning to identify more accurately the many victims who attend before Judges every day, unprotected within civil (family) proceedings. I am not personally content to be aligned with much of the sometimes misplaced “victim culture” growing in this country, but so far as the Family Courts are concerned, I feel this is long overdue. More training and a greater concept of what constitutes abuse and control within a family setting is more urgently in need of being fully and seriously addressed than ever before.
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