The family courts are putting domestic abuse victims and children at grave risk by sharing the secret addresses of shelters with the abusive ex-partner they are fleeing, and some survivors are suffering stalking as a result, London’s independent victims’ commissioner has warned.
Domestic abuse refuges, which house many women at risk of murder if they remain at home with their abuser, are located in secret locations and have strict security measures to ensure their residents remain safe.
Claire Waxman, London’s independent victims’ commissioner, told The Independent recent family court judgments have resulted in shelter locations being handed to abusive ex-partners which has led to victims enduring stalking and harassment.
She called for the law to be overhauled via the domestic abuse bill, which is currently going through the House of Lords, to stop family court judges sharing the location of refuges – warning disclosing such addresses can put all victims living there and support staff “at risk of violence and harassment”.
Ms Waxman said: “The safety and security of domestic abuse refuges saves lives and must be protected at all costs. Yet, we are seeing the safety of these locations undermined and survivors and children put at risk due to a serious lack of understanding in the family courts about how stalking and domestic abuse manifests.
“As it stands, the court has discretion as to what information is provided and has the option not to order refuges to disclose their addresses. That’s why it’s incredibly concerning when they turn a blind eye to this and put survivors at risk by ordering that their addresses be shared.
“We need the bill to state that refuge addresses should never be disclosed, not even to the court, and only the office address of the organisation should be used to effect service (of court orders) on a survivor fleeing violence,” she added.
Ms Waxman said the landmark legislation is a crucial “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to protect victims but ministers need to do more to make sure this “extends to the family courts”.
Every week in the UK, two women are murdered by a partner or ex-partner. A woman will try to leave a violent partner an average of seven times before eventually managing to flee – with statistics showing women are at the greatest risk of homicide at the point of separation or after leaving an abuser.
Charlotte Proudman, a family law barrister, told The Independent she has represented domestic abuse victims in cases where the refuge address has been discovered by alleged perpetrators which has, in turn, led to “stalking and ongoing abuse”.
Dr Proudman added: “What concerns me is that the courts failed to take proactive steps to ensure maximum levels of confidentiality in the refuge address.
“I have seen a refuge worker named and the refuge identified in a court order and I have seen a refuge being ordered to agree to child contact despite safety risks. In one case, the refuge explicitly stated that contact should not take place because of the safety risks to the victim of domestic abuse and the child.
“The judge ignored the refuge and ordered contact which led to the alleged perpetrator finding their location in the refuge and stalking her. Horrendously, the alleged perpetrator then abducted the child abroad causing emotional harm.”
Dr Proudman said this was due to the court not properly assessing the “risk of harm” domestic abuse causes and not listening to evidence provided by the refuge.
She argued it must be made “crystal clear” a refuge’s location should never be shared in court proceedings as just one case that “slips through the net is one too many” while the harm it can do is “irreversible”.
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.
Baroness Bertin, vice chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Domestic Violence and Abuse, said: “Having worked on the introduction of Stalking Protection Orders, I am aware of how prevalent stalking is in domestic abuse cases and how quickly this can escalate once the victim flees abuse. Disclosing a refuge’s safe address into the hands of a stalker at a high-risk time could be catastrophic for their victim and it is concerning to hear of cases where this information has been shared.
“The amendment I am proposing to the domestic abuse bill will provide a legal safety net for the secrecy of refuge addresses.”
Last month, the Court of Appeal examined how the family court protects victims of domestic abuse as leading women’s rights organisations warned judges’ outdated views endanger survivors and their children.
The government launched a review last November looking at how the family courts’ approach to parental access affects the safety of children, with the findings set to be released this year.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Protecting victims is our absolute priority. While existing measures enable this information to be kept confidential by the court, we are working with the judiciary to see how we can better protect those in refuges.”
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