Theresa May rejects calls from 120 MPs for public inquiry into family courts after four children murdered by abusive parents

Prime minister says government believes formal probe into child deaths not 'necessary'

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 15 May 2019 14:23 BST
Theresa May rejects calls for public inquiry into family courts

Theresa May has rejected calls for a public inquiry into how courts protect vulnerable children and victims of domestic abuse, despite more than 120 MPs urging her to launch a probe.

Concerns were raised when it emerged that four children had been murdered by a parent in the last five years after a family court granted access.

The revelation prompted MPs to suggest that the justice system was being used "as a weapon to traumatise victims" and that courts were making decisions "contrary to the interests of victims of domestic abuse, rape and violence, or their children".

Family courts have the power to grant a parent unsupervised access to their child in cases where there is a dispute between the separated parents.

The BBC's Victoria Derbyshire Show found that some courts had granted access even when the parent was known to be violent, including when they had been convicted of rape or assault.

It found that four children had been murdered by a parent in the past five years, while a further four were sexually abused or seriously injured. The youngest victim was reportedly just five months old.

But asked about the issue by Labour MP Louise Haigh during Prime Minister's Questions, Ms May insisted that a public inquiry was not needed.

She said: "The Ministry of Justice currently have not seen evidence to suggest that a public inquiry is necessary."

Ms May said new guidelines published by the head of the family courts system last week would provide greater "clarity" and "transparency".

She said: "The family court system should never be used to coerce or to re-victimise those who have been abused, and a child's welfare must be the paramount consideration for the court in any proceedings."

The prime minister said she would ensure that justice minister Robert Buckland met with Ms Haigh to discuss the issue.

In a letter to justice secretary David Gauke, organised by Ms Haigh, 123 MPs from across the House of Commons called for an independent inquiry into the family court system.

They wrote: "None of us want to believe that the rule of law and the justice system in this country, of which we are are proud, can be used as a weapon to traumatise victims."

They continued: "The lack of transparency in the family courts, while essential in maintaining the privacy of families and children, does not allow scrutiny and masks decisions that are made contrary to the interests of victims of domestic abuse, rape and violence, or their children.

"We are therefore calling for an independent inquiry into the treatment of victims of domestic abuse and violence in the family courts to establish the extent of the problem and if more fundamental reform is required to address the issue."

The MPs raised the case of Sammy Woodhouse, a survivor of the Rotherham sexual exploitation scandal, whose abuser, Arshid Hussain, was offered the opportunity to seek access to their son.

Hussain is currently serving a 35-year prison sentence for multiple rapes, but Rotherham Council said the current law obliged it to notify him of his rights of access.

The MPs said "no one could argue Hussain should have the right to apply for access or visitation rights" and urged ministers to amend the Children's Act 1989 to "remove the automatic parental rights of those who fathered a child through rape".

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