Spotlight on child protection in family courts

A panel of experts will review how the family courts protect children and parents in cases of domestic abuse and other serious offences, Ministers announced today (Tuesday 21 May)

• Panel to make recommendations and report back in three months
• Public ‘Call for Evidence’ to gather views on how the current system can be improved
• Focus on ensuring the family court works in the explicit interests of the child

The three-month project aims to ensure that the family court works first and foremost in the explicit interests of the child, such as their safety, health and well-being. The MOJ-chaired panel will consist of a range of experts including senior members of the judiciary, leading academics and charities.

A public call for evidence will also be launched imminently and will look to those with direct involvement to share their experiences.

The move follows responses received through the government’s domestic abuse consultation in which concerns were raised around the family courts’ response to potential harm to children and victims. In addition to calls for better protections for children, some claim that domestic abusers are using the court system to re-traumatise their victims.

Every day family court judges do outstanding work making difficult decisions in highly emotive cases where the paramount consideration is the welfare of the child. Ministers now want to take a closer look at how existing safeguards in the court process are working in practice and, if necessary, strengthen them.

Justice Minister Paul Maynard said:

"Some of the most vulnerable in our society come before the family courts, and I am absolutely determined that we offer them every protection.

"This review will help us better understand victims’ experiences of the system, and make sure the family court is never used to coerce or re-traumatise those who have been abused.

"Its findings will be used to inform next steps so we can build on the raft of measures we have already introduced to protect victims of domestic abuse."

Specifically, the work will:

• examine the courts’ application of Practice Direction 12J – this relates to child arrangement cases where domestic abuse is a factor

• examine the courts’ application of ‘barring orders’ which prevent further applications being made without leave of the court under the Children Act 1989

• gather evidence of the impact on the child and victim where child contact is sought by someone alleged to have, or who has, committed domestic abuse or other relevant offences

The panel will consider how the family courts handle a range of offences including rape, child abuse, assault, sexual assault, murder and other violent crime, with the government committed to ensuring the right protections are in place for victims and their children.

This will build on the draft Domestic Abuse Bill, published in January, which includes measures to ban abusers from directly cross-examining their victims in family courts, on top of the £8 million of funding announced to support children affected by domestic abuse.

Last year, we made changes to make it easier for victims of domestic abuse to obtain and provide the evidence required to access legal aid, including removing the time limit from all forms of evidence for domestic violence. And we have allocated £900k in funding for organisations to providing specially trained staff to offer dedicated emotional and practical support to domestic abuse victims before, during and after hearings in the family court. Further details on the review, the composition of the panel and the call for evidence will be announced in due course.