Domestic Abuse Bill - Committee (4th Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 3rd February 2021.
Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb:
Moved by Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb
130A: After Clause 64, in subsection (4) after inserted text (8)(b) insert—“(c) pending a fact finding hearing or has been found to have committed domestic abuse in a previous fact-finding hearing; orwho has a criminal conviction for a domestic abuse offence.”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause seeks to change the presumption that parental involvement furthers the child’s welfare when there has been domestic abuse. It also prohibits unsupervised contact for a parent awaiting trial or on bail for domestic abuse offences, or where there are ongoing criminal proceedings for domestic abuse.
My Lords, some of the earlier amendments to the Bill have been about removing stress from survivors, particularly when they are in court. I support Amendment 130 moved by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and my amendment is a friendly amendment. Our amendments are about removing stress from children, which I think noble Lords will agree is a very noble cause. As other noble Lords have found, we have been contacted by an incredible number of people and organisations, who have explained that this is a problem and it needs fixing. The presumption of contact in certain family law cases involving domestic abuse needs to be rethought. Obviously, it is incredibly important in many family situations to help children maintain contact with both parents, but in circumstances of domestic abuse this can be precisely the opposite of what needs to happen and can result in disaster.
The whole point of family courts is that they are supposed to be about the welfare of the child, but it seems that too often a court maintains contact in situations that are obviously very harmful to children. The courts apply this presumption of contact too rigidly. Rather than acting as a presumption which can be rebutted, it has become more of an overriding obsession. It has been described as creating a “culture of contact” which pervades the entire family court system and then excludes other aspects of a child’s welfare, including listening to the child’s wishes and protecting them from abuse.
This culture of contact has led to serious tragedies. As the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, mentioned the Women’s Aid report Nineteen Child Homicides documents 19 children in 12 families who were killed at the hands of abusive fathers during unsupervised contact between the years 2005 and 2015. One example of a tragedy was Darren Sykes, who murdered his two children and took his own life by setting fire to his attic. Despite a consistent history of domestic abuse, and against the wishes of the two little boys, the pro-contact culture of the family courts led to Sykes being granted unsupervised contact with the children for five hours each week. This culminated in him taking the boys up to the attic, barricading the three of them in, and setting multiple fires. Mortally wounded, one of the boy’s last words were spoken to a firefighter. He said, “My dad did this, and he did it on purpose.”
Each one of these deaths is a preventable tragedy. Your Lordships have a duty, through the Bill, to prevent each one of them happening again to another child. My amendment to Amendment 130 has a straight- forward purpose: to ensure that unsupervised contact is not granted where the court has found that domestic abuse has taken place, or where there is a relevant criminal conviction. It should be put beyond doubt that a parent cannot have unsupervised contact when they have been proven to be a domestic abuser. This is a simple proposition: too many children are murdered by parents who are known—and who have been shown —to be abusive. We must protect these children and say, “Never again”.
My Lords, I am very supportive of the Bill. The mental and physical damage of domestic abuse goes far beyond the pain and anguish caused at the time it occurs and stays with victims and their families for many years, if not for the rest of their lives. It is important that we do all we can in this legislation to help victims to get out of abusive relationships and rebuild their lives.
I will speak on Amendments 130 and 130A and propose to add parental alienation to the definition of abusive behaviour and, therefore, every provision of the Bill. I fear that the amendments may undo much of the work which the Bill seeks to do to protect victims of domestic abuse and swing the pendulum of control back to the perpetrator of that abuse, rather than the victim, if they make counter-allegations.
Without meaning to sound flippant I say that, at the extreme, any parent going through a break-up or divorce could find themselves accused of domestic abuse under this Act. That is not what the Bill is intended for. I wonder if the concerns of noble Lords on these amendments are already covered by the combination of Clause 1(3)(e) and (5). Alternatively, if they had a specific instance in mind, they should look at where that can be catered for in specific clauses, not by a wholesale change to the entire Act in this way.
The noble Lord, Lord Marks, has made it clear that direct cross-examination can cause great distress. It is important to help all people in vulnerable situations. I can see these amendments having massive unintended consequences if they are included. I urge the House not to accept either of these changes, so as to maintain the integrity of the Act.
My Lords, I will speak principally to Amendment 130 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. Parental contact is, of course, enormously important. Continued contact can be very dangerous both mentally and physically, but it can be beneficial. To make the right decision for each family is of the utmost importance, and sometimes people get it wrong. However, my support for the amendment is nuanced. I support proposed new subsection (4) but I add that a parent of either sex who has been found to exercise controlling or coercive behaviour should probably not have continued contact with the children. Such contact is likely to be used to continue controlling the partner. The child becomes a pawn in the fight with the partner.
I know an appalling example of this. Years after a divorce between an American dad and a British mum, the mother is required to pay to fly to the US five or six times a year to take her child to the father for contact. Because she cannot trust the father to allow the child to come back, the mother keeps the passport. This means that, after the week’s contact, she has to fly to the US and pick up the child. Even Covid was not accepted as a reason not to go, and the mother caught it on the plane back to the UK over Christmas. The child does not want to go to see her father but is being used as a pawn.
I accept that anecdotal evidence is of limited value; I am a great believer in research. However, I ask that, before Report, the presumption of parental contact be considered in the context of controlling or coercive behaviour and the results of relevant research on the issue.
The first part of the amendment assumes that the presumption of parental contact should not apply in relation to a parent where domestic abuse has affected the child or other parent. I support the implication that parental contact should be very carefully assessed in these circumstances, but the wording of the amendment could be nuanced before Report. I fully accept that it should not be presumed that parental contact would apply in these circumstances.
In my experience, even when domestic abuse against children as well as a partner has occurred, this should not necessarily rule out parental contact. This depends on the nature of the abuse, the ages and level of understanding of the children, the presence or absence of controlling behaviour—a key factor in the situation—and an overall assessment of the potential harms and benefits involved. I also broadly support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, but I would qualify it on Report.
While again recognising the limited value of individual cases, I will illustrate with a personal experience my point that very serious domestic abuse and continued parental contact may be compatible and, indeed, helpful. The case I will cite involves abuse of children by a mother. As with abuse by a father, abuse by a mother can be extraordinarily damaging, and it can take the authorities a very long time to recognise it.
A male member of my family and his children suffered what can be described only as severe trauma over several years. It took Cafcass and the judicial system two and a half years to recognise that the person who was lying about her abuse of her children, and making up allegations, was in fact the mother. The authorities assumed at that time that mothers did not abuse their children. The very little eight year-old girl climbed up on a chair and unbolted the front door—she was always locked into her mother’s house—ran to the bus stop, managed to get on the right bus and get off at the right stop, and ran one mile through Tottenham to her dad’s house. Only then did the matter go back to court and the judge recognised that he and everyone else involved had made an appalling mistake. Having required the children to live with their mother for two and a half years, the lead social worker in the case finally made it clear that the children should only visit her but certainly not live with her.
The children have lived with their father ever since, but all have suffered from various levels of PTSD. They have had years of therapy, paid for the father, not by the state. Despite the abuse of the children and the damage to them, this father has encouraged contact with the mother. Once the children were safely placed with their father, he felt it was important for them to accept that their mum could not provide parenting but that she was, nevertheless, herself a victim. Her behaviour very much reflected her own experiences as a child. The children know that they cannot expect normal parenting, but they understand her mental state and therefore see her as a person with her own problems. In my view, they have benefited very much from the fact that they are not left with only the horrendous memories of their abuse as small children.
My personal experience, while only anecdotal, explains why I feel so strongly about the issue of parental contact. It is very complex yet hugely important. In conclusion, I support both these amendments but would like to see them adjusted before Report.
My Lords, throughout the preparation for proceedings on this Bill, I have been extremely impressed, and greatly assisted, by the work of Women’s Aid, the Victims’ Commissioner for London, the Victims’ Commissioner and many others who have worked tirelessly, with the grain of this Bill, to improve the response of us all, and the courts, to the scourge that is domestic abuse. However, with this amendment and the amendment to it, which many of them support, I have a number of concerns.
The amendment, as we have heard, seeks to disapply the presumption in Section 1(2A) of the Children Act 1989. I turn for a moment to two provisions of that widely admired legislation. As is well known, Section 1 provides:
“When a court determines any question with respect to … the upbringing of a child … the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.”
That overriding requirement lies at the heart of the Act, and judges and lawyers have long regarded it as the central canon of our law relating to children. The presumption under Section 1(2A) requires courts hearing proceedings, which include making orders about where children are to live and orders for contact between a child and their parents, to presume that
“unless the contrary is shown, that involvement of that parent in the life of the child concerned will further the child's welfare.”
That presumption reflects a wealth of evidence not mentioned so far in this debate, but it is generally in a child’s interest to have a relationship with each of their parents. However, that presumption is rebuttable, hence the words
“unless the contrary is shown.”
It is often the case that judges will make a decision, which generally they do not like to make but do, that given a history of domestic abuse by one parent of the other and the effect upon the child, contact with one parent will be withheld. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, confirmed that the statutory guidance for judges ensures that they carefully consider whether contact is justified or should be withheld.
I do not suggest for a moment that all contact is safe. As many have said, cases of abuse and very serious abuse can arise during and around occasions on which contact takes place, as it can on other occasions. But I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, which I rarely do on these issues, that the presumption is treated by the courts as overriding. I agree with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, that different solutions may be right for different families. The question for the House is where that leaves us. My concern is that there will be cases where this amendment runs the risk of putting the interests of children behind the interests of parents.
However, the removal of the presumption in this subsection is not the only reason I am concerned about this amendment and the amendment to it. Subsection (4) of the proposed new clause would forbid the court from making any order for unsupervised access with a parent who is
“awaiting trial, or on bail for, a domestic abuse offence, or … involved in ongoing criminal proceedings for a domestic abuse offence.”
That prohibition would be absolute, and I think it would be wrong. It would forbid a child from having unsupervised contact with a parent which may, in particular circumstances, work against the best interests of the child, contravening the paramountcy principle I mentioned. It should be for the judges to determine what the circumstances in each case demand. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, pointed out that circumstances differ and the extent to which they do.
Furthermore, the amendment is not limited to cases involving domestic abuse against a parent of the child concerned. Section 9(8) of the Children Act referred to in subsection (4) of the proposed new clause is concerned with allegations of “a domestic abuse offence.” The subsection would prohibit, for example, a court making an order for unsupervised contact between a father and his older child because the father had been accused of a domestic abuse offence committed against a new partner who was not the child’s mother, irrespective of any relationship between the new partner and the child. Such a prohibition would be grossly unjust, depriving the child of his or her relationship with the father. It would again run entirely counter to the paramountcy principle.
What is more, this amendment only requires, before unsupervised contact is prohibited, that allegations have been made. They need not have been established; they might be wrong or malicious. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, mentioned a case where they were indeed wrong. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, mentioned a case where allegations might be malicious. This provision runs the risk of inviting unwarranted allegations of abuse calculated to destroy a child’s relationship with a parent against whom nothing has been found, on the basis of allegations that may be irrelevant to the welfare of the child. A family judge would determine whether such allegations of abuse were made out and would do so on the basis of evidence adduced before the court, not on the basis of unproved allegations. This amendment involves, to that extent, a denial of justice and a denial of justice to children.
I firmly believe that judicial discretion should not be withdrawn in this sensitive area of family life. There are many cases where abusive behaviour by one parent towards another entirely justifies the withdrawal of contact between the abusive parent and the child. But there are other cases, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, recognised, where withdrawing contact is inimical to the welfare of the child.
Improving the way in which family courts understand and respond to domestic abuse of all sorts is of the greatest importance, but this amendment is too prescriptive in its statement and its outcome. Removing the power of judges to act in the best interests of the child, on whose behalf they daily make very difficult decisions, is not the way to achieve the aims of this Bill.
My Lords, at the outset, I was attracted to these amendments. As a lay person, listening to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, with his usual measured way of introducing amendments, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, I found the arguments compelling. But as I listened, I thought that although there is sometimes merit in having us lay people who have no knowledge of the law involved—as was mentioned in the previous group—the arguments showed why it is so important to have people who have experience with what the laws we are making would mean in practice in the courts. Having heard the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Marks, in particular, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher and Lady Gardner of Parkes, and believing that the intentions behind these amendments are worthy, because it seems self-evident that this must be done, I am not convinced that this way of dealing with the issue will be beneficial for the people we want to protect—the children.
Of course, those chilling statistics of where children have been killed by an abusive parent, after this has been discovered, are very concerning, but I am not necessarily sure that passing any of these amendments would completely rule it out. I think we all agree, those of us lucky enough to have happy families and know other happy families, what the harm would be for those who need it and that parental involvement is paramount.
Whereas I was very happy to support it—I will be interested to hear other speakers, notably the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who I know has extensive experience, and my noble friend the Minister—perhaps we can look at nuance, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said; some way of amending or making sure that, in the instructions to the courts, the presumption that they can disapply is recognised a bit more formally.
My Lords, my quick message to Hansard is that they can tear up the note I sent earlier. In fact, the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, has just made the speech I decided to make having listened to the debate. I do not propose to repeat what he said, save for the fact that the general thrust of his conclusion as a lay person is the same one I have come to. I read the briefings, considered the issue and listened to my noble friend Lord Rosser; I was then surprised when listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner. As the debate went on, I started to have second thoughts. This is the benefit of Committee—that is what it is for. The idea can be taken away and reworked.
I will raise one point from one of the briefings, from Support Not Separation and Women Against Rape, which quoted the harm review. They said they found a pattern of bias in the court professionals which gave weight to the views of the child who wanted contact but dismissed the views of the child who did not. That is extremely worrying.
However, having come to the same conclusion as the noble Lord, Lord Randall, I will leave it there.
My Lords, I view this amendment, which is in two parts, with some concern. To a very large extent, I share the views of the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, and those of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge.
When I was President of the Family Division—and throughout the 35 years I was a family judge—I heard a great many cases which had some element of domestic abuse. I do not like presumptions, if they can be avoided. I remember that, when the amended Section 1(2A) was introduced while I was a Member of this House, I was very dubious about it, because I do not like presumptions. The important point of the Children Act is Section 1, which says that
“the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.”
Any family judge or magistrate has to look at all the circumstances and decide whether it is appropriate, in those circumstances, for both parents to have a relationship with the child after their separation. In normal circumstances, one takes it for granted that both parents will have a relationship, but there will be cases in which there should not be one.
I am not quite so concerned about the first part of Amendment 130, because it says that subsection (2A) shall not apply in situations which have affected the child. Even so, it should be a matter where the welfare of the child is paramount and the judge exercises his or her discretion, having come to a conclusion based on all the facts.
I am particularly opposed to the second part of Amendment 130: the restrictions on Section 9. This is, first, because it does not require domestic abuse to have affected the child. Other points have been made on this by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, with which I entirely agree, but I can see circumstances where a child was for one reason or another—possibly at boarding school or away on holiday—not present when there was domestic abuse between the parents, and the child had no knowledge of it. In those circumstances, it would not be inappropriate for the child to have unsupervised contact with a parent who had done absolutely nothing wrong to the child but who may have been involved in a single or unusual circumstance which could be classified as domestic abuse of the other parent.
This draconian proposal that Section 9 be restricted is inappropriate, although I entirely understand and share the concerns about the parents—mothers as well as fathers—who have been given unsupervised contact where there are issues of domestic abuse which are true, where the children are then killed. That is extremely sad; there should be adequate training of all judges and/or magistrates trying family cases. It may be more important to get the Ministry of Justice to discuss with the Judicial College and the President of the Family Division whether the training of judges and magistrates in issues of domestic abuse, to which I shall refer on the next group, should be improved. I will later refer to a useful case in the Court of Appeal which has been discussing this.
I am completely opposed to the second part of Amendment 130. I am sympathetic to what lies behind it, but I believe there should be a broader consideration of whether, where the welfare of the children must be paramount, there should be any presumptions of any sort—but certainly not in the way this has been drafted.
In place of the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, I call the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann.
My Lords, I once again congratulate the Government on bringing forward this important Bill and on the constructive and helpful manner in which my noble friends the Ministers have all engaged with so many noble Lords to try to ensure that this legislation achieves its aim of protecting victims of domestic abuse.
I am speaking to Amendments 130 and 130A because I share the concerns expressed by other noble Lords that they may unintentionally undermine the aims of the Bill. I recognise the rationale and thinking behind them and the desire to protect children, who can be innocent victims in these awful cases, but I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and so many others that contact with both parents is normally in the long-term interests of children. That is why I supported amendments at an earlier stage to ensure that parental alienation is taken seriously, rather than being left to statutory guidance or, as these amendments might suggest, removed from the guidance as well.
The current legal position reflects huge amounts of evidence that children benefit from contact with both parents and that significant psychological damage can be caused by loss of such contact. I therefore have serious concerns that removing the presumption of contact could cause more harm to more children than this amendment is designed to prevent. Of course, there will be dreadful cases in which an abusive parent will perpetrate harm on the children, but that is extremely rare. As the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, the noble Lord, Lord Marks, the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and others have explained, the family courts already have the power, under the Children Act 1989, to decide against contact in individual cases where it is judged to be appropriate for that case. The Act presumes only that contact with both parents will be in the child’s interests unless the contrary is shown. Should the contrary indeed be shown, rather than merely alleged, and should abuse be proven, then those are clearly the exceptional cases in which a court would hardly be likely to grant access.
Do we not have a principle of ensuring that someone is proven guilty before being deprived of such important rights? Amendment 130 would require that, even where there are allegations of domestic abuse, whether it is against the child or a parent, the deprivation of access to children would still hold. That clearly invites the risk of unfounded allegations being made by one parent who wishes to prevent their ex-partner seeing the children, potentially as a way in which to punish the other parent or for other reasons. That could lead to the other parent being accused, for example, of emotional or psychological abuse, for which there may be no visible signs and which, indeed, may subsequently be disproved. However, the amendment would mean that the courts would deny access to the person who is accused before any judicial opportunity to find that parent innocent.
I echo the words of my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes, who mentioned parental alienation, which we discussed in an earlier group, and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and others: these cases can be hugely complex. We have to trust the courts to apply the expertise necessary in such cases, which are the vast majority. The presumption of contact seems to have so much weight of evidence behind it that it would be extremely unwise and damaging to many children if the amendment, and Amendment 130A, were accepted.
We do not want the Bill to damage children in a misguided attempt to help them. It does not seem to fit with natural justice to impose automatic sanctions without the normal judicial oversight or a conviction to substantiate claims. I recognise the intention of these amendments and I share the desire to prevent any children being severely harmed or even unwittingly put into the hands of an abuser who may kill them. However, I hope that Amendments 130 and 130A will not form part of the Bill because the alternative, whereby children are denied access to their parent, and the other parent is denied access to their children, on the basis of unsubstantiated and potentially false claims, could lead to substantial harm and, indeed, the suicide of a parent or children, who often suffer terribly if they are unable to have contact with a parent.
My Lords, there has been a varied response to the Bill. What has come out of it is that nothing is as simple as it might appear in situations of the kind described. The somewhat harrowing example given by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, underlines that.
As we have heard, Amendments 130 and 130A seek to change the presumption that it is in the welfare of a child to have unsupervised contact when one parent has either a domestic abuse conviction or court proceedings against them. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, told us that she does not like presumptions and that we need to consider all the circumstances—that has certainly come out of this afternoon’s debate.
As we know, the presumption of the courts is that it is in the welfare of the child for both parents to have access now, everything else being equal. However, when one parent is accused of abusing or has abused the other parent or the child, or they are subject to a Crown prosecution case, everything is most decidedly not equal. We have discussed enough times during the course of the Bill just how difficult and stressful a domestic abuse situation can be for a child, who can be used and abused as a pawn between warring partners. And it can get far, far worse than that.
Several noble Lords used statistics to back up this argument. Mine come from the charity Refuge, which, in partnership with a Sunday Mirror journalist, conducted an investigation which found that, between 2004 and 2019, 63 children were killed at the hands of a domestic abuse perpetrator who had contact with their children after being convicted of a serious criminal offence. Refuge reports that the actual figures of child harm are even higher, with many children dying from other causes, such as neglect. This is the danger of under- estimating the risk that perpetrators can pose to their children. It does not apply to all perpetrators, of course; many who have committed domestic abuse against their partners are different altogether with the children—a point another noble Lord made.
We should also consider how previous matters are taken into consideration. In particular, my colleague and noble friend Lord Marks gave an example of a previous situation in which domestic abuse took place, perhaps in a previous life. But domestic abuse still figures in that situation, so if an alleged perpetrator has a previous domestic abuse conviction, it would be better to be safe than sorry.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, moved Amendment 130A, as an amendment to Amendment 130, which takes matters a little further to include fact-finding hearings in the family courts, which most commonly concern domestic abuse. In such hearings, it is for the person making the allegations to prove that they are true. The judge considers on the balance of probabilities whether the allegations are true or not. The presumption in Amendment 130 is therefore extended while the hearings take place. I think it is better that, where there is a previous conviction, even with another partner in a different situation, it is still far better to be safe than sorry.
I hope that the Minister will be minded to consider these amendments carefully and, if necessary, make changes to make them a little better on Report.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, has explained, Amendment 130, formerly in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, seeks to make it clear that the presumption that parental involvement furthers the child’s welfare cannot apply where there is evidence of domestic abuse. It also seeks to prohibit unsupervised contact for a parent awaiting trial or on bail for domestic abuse offences or where there are ongoing criminal proceedings for domestic abuse.
Amendment 130A in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, extends this. It seeks to prohibit unsupervised contact for a parent pending a fact-finding hearing in family proceedings or where domestic abuse is alleged or is proven—either in such a fact-finding hearing or as the result of a criminal conviction for a domestic abuse offence.
Before proceeding, I hope the Committee will forgive me if I make two overarching points. First—and I say this respectfully, given my short time in this House—the debate we have just had shows the value and importance of Committee stage. A number of contributors have listened to and considered the points that have been made and, on occasion, have changed their position. There is nothing wrong with that. If I have one regret—and again I say this respectfully—it is that our PR means that the value of these Committees is not as well understood outside this House as it is within it.
Secondly, in the last debate, the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, made the point that what seems an arcane legal matter to lawyers—and perhaps to others in this Chamber—is improved by real-world experience and examples. In this debate, contributions from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, have done just that. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, that anecdote is not evidence and that we must have research. I will come to this issue later in my remarks. Hearing the case of an eight year-old girl unlocking the front door to catch a bus to get to her father’s house is a powerful example. The image of a child saying his last words to a fireman in a smoke-filled attic will stay with me, and rightly so. It reminds me that, although we are debating words on paper, they have consequences in the real world. I am sure that many, if not all, noble Lords will feel the same.
I have a great deal of sympathy for the aims of these amendments, and I agree that more needs to be done to ensure that the courts take proper account of the impact that domestic abuse can have on children’s well-being and safety. To that extent, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, that we should seek to remove stress from children, in so far as we can. That was why, late last year, following the recommendations from the Expert Panel on Harm in the Family Courts, the Government launched a review on the presumption of parental involvement. Importantly, the panel did not call for immediate legislative change. Instead, it recommended a full review. They were right to do so. As the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, said and as noble Lords will be aware, this review is under way. As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said, it will give us important data, research and a considered analysis.
The review will focus on the presumption—and its exception—and the impact on children’s welfare of the courts’ application of these provisions. It will allow us to build a stronger evidence base and ensure that any changes brought about as a result are rooted in a solid understanding of the effect of the presumption and the associated evidence on child welfare. It would therefore be premature to amend the legislation relating to the presumption, including Section 9 of the Children Act—as proposed in the amendment—before gaining the in-depth evidence from the review.
It is worth highlighting that the current legislation on the presumption makes it clear that it should be disapplied where there is risk of harm to the child. This means that the risk of harm from a parent perpetrator of domestic abuse should already be taken into account by the courts. As the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, reminded us, Section 1 of the Children Act 1989 makes the child’s welfare paramount. It should also ensure that courts consider the risk of a child suffering harm, or further harm, when deciding on any aspect of the child’s upbringing.
Some noble Lords asked how contact between a child and a parent who has committed domestic abuse, or against whom it has been alleged, could ever be in the best interests of the child. The short answer is that this is not an easy question, but it is for the courts to decide in each case, taking into account all the evidence presented to them. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, has vast experience in this area. She gave us an example of such a possible case. She also made an important point about judicial training, which we shall come to in a later group.
In addition to my general point that this issue is catered for in the current statutory architecture, there are two further problems to which the amendments would lead. First, domestic abuse is only one of many circumstances which may impact on a child’s well-being and safety. By expressly referring to it, these amendments could be seen to give domestic abuse prominence over other valid considerations which the court should take into account in deciding whether such an order would be in the best interests of the child—for example, other sexual or violent offending, or a history of or allegations of child abuse. I say this without downplaying in any way the importance and effect of domestic abuse.
Secondly, as a number of contributors have said, the second part of the amendment would lead to an automatic ban. The court could not exercise discretion. If we legislate to create automatic bans on a particular form of contact, there may be concerns that we are not allowing courts to take sufficient account of whether there are risks to the child in the particular circumstances of the case. Risks and rights must be weighed carefully, allowing courts to assess each case on its merits. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, gave an example where, on the facts of the case, a court might want to permit contact.
Other noble Lords, who are not lawyers, have also contributed to this debate. My noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge summarised it very well—so much so that he led the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, to tear up his speech. This must be a rare, if not unique, occurrence. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said it was “likely” that the court would reach such a conclusion. This is the point I am making: it may be likely, but we should not force the court to do so. We should not remove the court’s discretion. Ultimately, the court should make the decision, based on all the facts of the case. Furthermore, it is not clear from the terms of the amendment whether such bans, if they prevent unsupervised contact following a conviction or finding of fact, would or should be capable of being lifted or modified if the risks in an individual case materially change. I respectfully agree with my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes when she said that she was not persuaded that the amendment was necessary, and that it might have unintended consequences.
I also agree with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull: that nothing is as simple as it first appears in this area of the law. There are risks on all sides in this area, so to speak. There are risks of contact and, as my noble friend Lady Altmann reminded us, there are risks in preventing contact as well. I therefore suggest to the Committee that the approach in the current legislation, which was identified and explained by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, with, if I may respectfully say so, her customary clarity, is the correct one.
Forgive me, I am just looking at my notes to make sure that I have acknowledged all the contributions that were made. I think that I have; I apologise if I have inadvertently omitted anybody. I hope that I have replied to all noble Lords who contributed.
This has been, as I said at the start, a most important and valuable debate. The Government’s contention is that we should wait for the outcome of the review of the presumption of parental involvement before any decisions are taken in relation to whether changes are required to that presumption or its application. Given this and the other points I have made in reply, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, will be content to withdraw his amendment if the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, does so with hers.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who contributed to this extremely valuable debate. In particular, I thank the Minister for his sympathy for our point of view. As he says, there are real consequences in rejecting these amendments. I note the heavyweight opposition on several points but I am not convinced. The fact is that we have a problem and just rejecting these amendments will not solve it. I hope that there will be further working together on this, and that noble Lords will forgive me if I do not note all the responses, as it was fairly clear these amendments will not be going forward.
I really want to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, for her very constructive comments. The fact is that, as she said, we can underestimate the damage done by perpetrators. This is the problem. We have not fixed the problem of children’s deaths through abusive parents. Going forward, I want to find out how we can solve that problem. Let us please remember that deaths are a figure we can point to but that mental, physical and emotional abuse are much harder to quantify. This must happen. If we have 20, 24 or 60 deaths, whatever, then a multiplicity of other abuses will have happened. We must take that into account in rejecting these amendments. I said at the beginning of the debate that there is always a presumption of parental involvement—that it is better to have two parents involved—but the way that things stand at the moment is too strong, so this must be rethought.
I beg leave to withdraw my amendment and presume that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, will also be withdrawn. I feel that he was absolutely right to table his amendment, because it has enabled a debate. Hopefully, we will move forward and find a solution.
Amendment 130A (to Amendment 130) withdrawn.
I am not quite sure what right of reply I have, since my name is not shown on the speakers’ list as being able to speak at the end of this debate. I do not want to test the patience of the House, so I had probably better keep my comments brief.
It was the expert panel set up by the Ministry of Justice which came to the conclusion that the presumption in favour of contact
“further reinforces the pro-contact culture and detracts from the court’s focus on the child’s individual welfare and safety.”
I would add that my amendment does not prevent a court coming to the conclusion that, nevertheless, where there is domestic abuse, there should still be involvement with both parents. It is just that it would not start off with a presumption that it should be the case.
I will leave my comments there. I thank the Minister for his full response, and thank all noble Lords who took part in the debate. Bearing in mind that I am not actually shown as having a right to speak at the end, I had better conclude my comments by begging leave to withdraw my amendment.
The noble Lord was entitled to speak. He was just left off the list inadvertently.
Amendment 130 withdrawn.