“(1) If a court order is to be served on a person [P] who has been subject to domestic abuse as defined in section 1 of this Act and who is residing at a refuge, the court order—
(a) must not be served on P at the residential address of the refuge, except if a court has ordered that it can be in the circumstances set out in subsection (3); but
(b) can be served on P at the refuge’s office address or by an alternative method or at an alternative place, in accordance with part 6 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010.
(2) The address of the refuge in subsection (1) shall not be given to any individual or third party without the express permission of the court.
(3) Where attempts to serve the court order by the alternative means referred to in subsection (1)(b) have been unsuccessful, an application may be made to the court to serve the court order on P at the refuge’s residential address.
(4) An application under subsection (3) must state—
(a) the reason why an order can only be served at the refuge’s residential address;
(b) what alternative methods have been proposed and the consequences; and
(c) why the applicant believes that the order is likely to reach P if the order is served at the refuge’s residential address.”—
This amendment seeks to ensure that, where a victim of domestic abuse is residing in a refuge, the address of that refuge cannot be revealed as part of a service order or location order without express permission of the court.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
This new clause arose out of cases that occurred a number of weeks ago, which highlighted something frightening. Specialist domestic violence refuges have supported hundreds of thousands of people over many years. They are life-saving, provide sanctuary, and are established specifically to meet the needs of women and children who need refuge. In most cases, the confidentiality of a refuge is crucial for the safety and wellbeing of those who stay there, and I cannot express to Members how seriously refuges take their confidentiality. Every single person who lives in a refuge signs a licence agreement that says that if they tell somebody, they have to leave, and enforcing that rule when it is broken is heartbreaking.
The Bill offers a golden opportunity to ensure that there is legal clarity about the nature of refuge provision, including the key elements that are necessary to preserve their integrity. At present, it is not explicitly clear that refuge residential addresses and the identity of those who work for a refuge must remain confidential, so that must change. Service of family court orders on families in refuges, particularly location orders, is often applied for by fathers when mothers and children have fled the family home to refuges following allegations of domestic abuse. The family courts use tipstaffs and the police to locate the mother and children in refuges, even though the address of those refuges is not publicly available.
Once they are located, the refuge is usually ordered to provide its address directly to the court to facilitate the service of court orders on mothers. Often the court order explicitly names the refuge and its manager, which is intimidating and could result in them becoming identified. Family courts usually order the police to attend the refuge’s residential address to serve the order on the mother. This causes upset, anxiety and distress to the mother who is served with a court order, and to the other women and children living in the refuge, who have reported feeling retraumatised by the process. Women who experience a number of intersectional inequalities, such as race, language barriers and insecure immigration status, have reported receiving a heavy-handed response from the police, being unable to understand what the police are saying, and feeling that they are being treated as criminals.
In at least one case that I have heard of in the past few weeks, a mother and child were located and stalked as a result of their refuge’s residential address being disclosed to the court. They had to move to two different refuge addresses, and then the father abducted the child and took them abroad. In another case, the police served a family court order on a vulnerable mother who does not speak English and sought safety with her two children. The mother found the experience degrading and humiliating. Concerns arose in that case that the father had discovered the family’s location, and as such the mother and children had to be moved on to another location.
It is acceptable that family court orders must be served on mothers, but the current family judicial practice is not acceptable, as it breaches women and children’s rights to a safe family life and a private life under article 8 of the European convention on human rights. The approach adopted by family courts is haphazard and inconsistent, with much depending on the judge’s approach to the case before them. Many judges have had no training on domestic abuse.
The situation I have outlined could easily be avoided by ensuring that refuge addresses are always confidential and that family court orders are served by alternative means, as per the family procedure rules 2010. A simple amendment to those rules would ensure that a consistent approach is adopted by all family judges. If such an amendment is not made, the same poor practice will continue.
It is imperative that this situation is addressed urgently, before irreparable harm is caused. I have therefore tabled this new clause, to prevent the service of family court orders at refuge residential addresses, and to ensure that refuge residential addresses and the identity of refuge workers remain confidential.
I apologise to the Committee; I am stepping into the shoes of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham, as he is about to appear on the Floor of the House, so please spare me particularly detailed questions and I will do my best.
We absolutely recognise the life-saving sanctuary that refuges provide for victims and their children, and we believe that existing legislation and court procedure rules state clearly that parties actively engaged in family proceedings are not required to disclose their address or that of their children, unless directed to do so by the court. Furthermore, parties may apply in any event to withhold such information from other parties.
When adequate information about the location of a child is not known to the court, the court can order any person who may have relevant information to disclose it to the court. In the first instance, details of the child’s address and who they are living with are disclosed only to the court and not to other parties. The court determines how this information should be used, based on the case details. Where there are allegations of domestic abuse, the court can and does treat this information as confidential, and holds it. We therefore believe that subsection (2) of the new clause is not required.
Subsection (1) would prevent the service of a court order at a refuge’s residential address, other than with the permission of the court following an application made under subsections (3) and (4). I fully appreciate that victims living in a refuge are fearful for their safety, and that their experiencing or witnessing the service of an order at a refuge would be very distressing. However, where courts are concerned about the welfare of a child, they must be able to take rapid and direct action to locate them. Direct service of an order at a refuge’s residential address may sometimes be necessary, for example when urgent concern about a child’s welfare demands it. Therefore, provisions to limit how documents may be served in specific places could have the unintended consequence of endangering a child.
I would like to reassure hon. Members that the courts may already direct completely bespoke service arrangements, based on the facts of a case. The family procedure rules 2010 provide clear powers for the courts to order service at alternative places, such as at an address other than a refuge’s residential address, and set out the procedure for making such applications.
In summary, we believe that the important outcomes sought by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley are already provided for in existing legislation and court rules. However, I want to reassure the Committee that we are committed to protecting vulnerable victims of domestic abuse who live in refuges. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham met the deputy president of the family court on Monday and raised these concerns, among others, and we will work with the deputy president to explore whether amendments to the family procedure rules 2010 could strengthen safeguards for victims and their children who live in refuges. On that basis, I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw the new clause.
I will withdraw the new clause, and I am heartened by the fact that the hon. Member for Cheltenham, who is no longer in his place, has spoken to the divisional lead in the family court. This is one of those situations where there may very well be regulations in place to allow the outcomes we want, but something is still going wrong, and an assessment and a change in this area is needed.
I understand the deep concerns that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle, has needing to think through the potential for harm to come to a child, although I would argue that, in refuge services, there would be somebody there in the vast majority of cases. There are quite strict and stringent safeguarding measures in place in refuges to ensure that children come to no harm. However, I am pleased to hear what she said and will speak to the other Minister about it another time, when he is not debating the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.