Domestic abuse survivors and their children are still falling through the cracks

In the middle of a public health crisis, when our family courts should be protecting the most vulnerable, victims of abuse and their children have instead been put at risk

Claire Waxman
Thursday 21 May 2020 14:15 BST
Robert Jenrick announces help for domestic abuse survivors

Since lockdown measures were introduced eight weeks ago, the pandemic has thrown a spotlight on the dangerous gaps and systemic failings that put the safety of victims and survivors of domestic abuse at risk. They must be urgently addressed.

Concerning cases have been brought to my attention suggesting the safety of victims has been compromised by decisions made in the family courts.

These rulings have meant that in the midst of a public health crisis, when our family courts should be protecting the most vulnerable, victims of abuse and their children have instead been put at risk, giving perpetrators the opportunity to continue cycles of abuse.

One example we have been made aware of involved a recent High Court decision ordering a refuge to reveal its address to a perpetrator of domestic abuse looking to locate a survivor and the children. Refuges provide secure and safe places for victims and their children to flee abuse, and are a lifeline for many. This decision to reveal the address fundamentally undermines the well-established refuge model, which is based on protecting victims through the absolute secrecy of the safe address.

In making such an order, the courts put the safety of the survivor and children at risk, as well as the safety of all the other vulnerable inhabitants of the refuge and the staff who are already at high risk of abuse and doing everything they can to support victims in this incredibly challenging time.

Family courts are also not properly communicating with victims, unwittingly facilitating further abuse and control. I have been told about a case in which a perpetrator accused of domestic abuse had the terms of the child contact arrangement changed – as the contact centre was closed due to social distancing measures – and the family court allowed him unsupervised visits in his victim’s home. The victim, however, was not aware of the court order until the perpetrator turned up at the doorstep demanding to be let into her home.

While the lockdown period has highlighted some of the serious gaps in the family justice system for victims of abuse, sadly, I am all too aware that many of these are not new.

I have been listening to victims for years, telling me stories of being retraumatised through family court decisions which have put them and their children in danger. Unfortunately it seems that over the years, the courts have given a platform for abusers to continue their harassment and control. I believe these most recent cases are only the tip of the iceberg. Last year, I called for a full inquiry into the family courts to ensure victims of abuse and their children are protected from further harm and trauma.

Instead, the government conducted a short review of the operation of the family courts. The interim report from this review has highlighted that there are currently serious failings around how victims are risk assessed, potentially putting them at risk of further harm and danger. It is vital that the government publish the full findings and evidence from their family court review and that the solutions are included in the Domestic Abuse Bill.

Thanks to the hard work of many campaigners, the Domestic Abuse Bill includes some measures to protect victims in the family courts such as banning cross-examination by perpetrators, but it does not go far enough. This Bill provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the way we respond to domestic abuse and to get it right.

The government needs to act now to stop any more victims being let down by the system that should be protecting them. This requires the right safeguards to be included in the Domestic Abuse Bill, including a call I’m supporting from the third sector which would prohibit unsupervised contact for a parent waiting for trial, or on bail for, a domestic abuse or serious related offence. In addition, refuge addresses should never be disclosed, not even to the court, and only the office address of the refuge organisation should be used by the court to serve orders to the victim.

As we begin to think about life after lockdown, we need to give victims a sense of hope that we will learn lessons from this period. If we are to protect victims from further harm and trauma, I urge the government to listen to the experts, examine these recent cases and the learning from their review and deliver substantial changes for survivors of domestic abuse through the Domestic Abuse Bill.

Claire Waxman is the victims’ commissioner for London

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