Family courts carry out ‘state sanctioned abuse’ of domestic abuse survivors by letting perpetrators see children, commissioner warns

Exclusive: Abusers emboldened to ‘continue cycles of abuse, including control, unwanted contact and harassment,’ says London’s first commissioner for victims

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Wednesday 22 July 2020 16:27
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Ms Waxman says the family courts have emboldened domestic abusers to 'continue cycles of abuse, including control, unwanted contact and harassment'
Ms Waxman says the family courts have emboldened domestic abusers to 'continue cycles of abuse, including control, unwanted contact and harassment'

Family courts are responsible for “state-sanctioned abuse” of domestic abuse victims as they allow violent parents to torment their ex-partners through the legal process, London’s victims commissioner has warned.

Frontline service providers warn domestic abusers use the family courts to continue terrorising their ex-partners - with domestic abuse allegations routinely dismissed and abusive ex-partners given access to their children.

The victims commissioner’s warning comes as the domestic abuse bill, which has been hailed as a once in a generation chance to tackle domestic violence, goes through parliament.

Claire Waxman, who is the capital’s first commissioner for victims, told The Independent the domestic abuse bill, which is in the report stage, does not properly protect victims going through the family courts.

The family courts have emboldened domestic abusers to “continue cycles of abuse, including control, unwanted contact and harassment”, she said.

She added: “Family courts should not allow the perpetrator to have parental responsibility or contact with the survivor when the perpetrator has a conviction, is subject to a restraining order, or where it’s been proven that they pose a serious risk of harm to that individual and the child.

“The government must ensure all victims have access to legal representation. They must make non-means tested legal aid available for domestic abuse cases, and ensure that courts have domestic abuse experts who can recognise and restrict legal proceedings that are being exploited by abusers.

“I am calling for the government to act now, to stop any more victims being let down by a system that should be protecting them.”

Her comments comes after the government announced a major overhaul of the family courts to protect domestic abuse victims at the end of last month.

New plans, which will be included in the domestic abuse bill, mean more victims will be able to use separate courtroom entrances, waiting rooms and protective screens to protect them from their abusive partners.

Lila*, a domestic abuse survivor who gave evidence to the House of Lords on Wednesday, said her abusive ex-partner has been given custody of her children despite him physically and emotionally abusing her for decades.

She said: “On the night I left, my ex was arrested and kept in the cells until we made it safely away from our home. When I left, my ex said to me: ‘I will make you destitute and you will lose all your children’. Sadly, the family courts have helped him achieve most of that over the past several years.

“Due to legal proceedings, I am now in thousands of pounds of debt and have lost custody of my young child. I am hardly able to put into words the pain the past few years have caused me and the despair I feel knowing my child is living with an abusive father.

“Overall, the court has totally failed to identify the domestic abuse I have suffered and to treat my ex as an abuser. Despite being held overnight by police and there being CCTV footage of him abusing and hurting me, the court has never acknowledged my abuse.

“At the start of the court proceedings, there were various allegations of domestic abuse and coercive control, yet the judges never helped us to resolve these issues nor appeared to take them in to account. Instead, I have been labelled as anxious and my abuser has been granted continued control over my life.

“I never stood a chance against my abuser and the courts have totally failed me and my children. They have not only failed to identify us as victims but have provided a new forum for him to continue his abuse and control. I am emotionally and financially ruined and have lost my youngest child.

“Since granting primary custody to my ex, I haven’t been able to speak to my child. I am distraught at the idea that they think I might have abandoned them. I am out of options and may have to forgo a relationship with my child until they are old enough to make decisions for themselves, but I dread to think what may have happened to my child in the interim.”

Lila said her abusive ex-partner has substantial financial resources and spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on an “entourage of expensive lawyers”.

She said she is a litigant in person – adding that this means she does not have a chance in the court system due to it not being a “level playing field”.

Her ex has “caused chaos” every week by harassing her with letters from his solicitors and applying to the court for emergency hearings, she said.

Lila said she had attended court over 15 times, including emergency hearings during the coronavirus lockdown.

She said her child had been placed at substantial risk by living with her ex-partner – adding that her child is on a child protection plan due to the “emotional harm inflicted by their father”. Lila said if her child showed “reluctance or emotional distress” about spending time with their father, it was deemed to be the consequence of her own “negative influence”.

“I have been threatened with community service and even prison for failing to get my child to contact with him,” she added. “I have been accused of parental alienation, despite making every effort to comply with contact arrangements – even when my child was screaming and crying.

“In one of the most painful exchanges, my child was hysterically crying in at the court in front of the judge and the judge still ordered overnight contact with the child’s father. As a mother, it breaks my heart to feel like I have ignored my child’s wishes and failed to protect them.”

Parents can face fines or even jail sentences if they do not make sure their child sees an ex-partner on a supervised or unsupervised visit when court-ordered contact is in place.

Misha*, a domestic abuse victim who also gave evidence to the House of Lords, said her ex relentlessly stalked her after they broke up.

She said the court’s assumption contact is in the best interests of the child resulted in her abusive ex-partner being given access to her via the family courts for half a decade which subsequently put both her and her children’s safety at risk.

Misha added: “When we were together, my ex had told me to have an abortion because he didn’t like the sex of the baby, he threatened to kidnap my older children. When my ex first made an application for contact with my child, he had a conviction for harassment which resulted in an indefinite restraining order prohibiting any contact with me and my children, and also convictions for GBH, theft and harassment of another victim.

“Soon after the family court process started he breached the restraining order and received another conviction. Following the advice of the police, I moved my family to a place of safety.

“During the five year court process, he was given our location by the court meaning we have now moved three times. He was given a lot of personal information about me and I had to write lengthy reports detailing how traumatised I was by his stalking and his use of family court to continue this abuse, thus feeding his obsession, I felt terrified throughout the whole process.

“Family court terrified me, while I was trapped in family court I could hardly eat or sleep, I was in shock that the system that was supposed to protect children was putting us through a nightmare that I couldn’t escape from. Even though I have been free of family court for a few years I am still terrified that my ex may use it again to get access to me.”

Misha said all the professionals from Social Services and Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) said her ex-partner was a risk to her and her children in every report produced for the family court and there should be no contact, but each time the court ignored the recommendations.

The Independent previously revealed thousands of domestic abusers are preying on their victims during meetings with their children ordered by the family courts.

Women are being subjected to coercive control, and physical and even sexual assault from their ex-partners when children are being picked up or dropped off.

A 2016 study by Women’s Aid revealed the cases of 19 children in 12 families who were all intentionally killed by a parent who was also a known perpetrator of domestic abuse. All of the perpetrators were male and fathers to the children they killed.

The perpetrators all had access to their children via formal or informal child contact arrangements – with more than half of the custody provisions having been ordered through the courts.

*Names have been changed to protect identities

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