Proceedings under the Children Act 1989

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 17th June 2020.

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“Proceedings under the Children Act 1989

‘(1) Part I of the Children Act 1989 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 1 (the welfare of the child) after subsection (2B) insert—

“(2C) Subsection (2A) shall not apply in relation to a parent where there has been domestic abuse which has affected the child or other parent.

(2D) Evidence of domestic abuse may be provided in one or more of the forms set out in regulation 33(2) of the Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) Regulations 2012.”

(3) Part II of the Children Act 1989 is amended as follows.

(4) In section 9 (restrictions on making section 8 orders) after subsection (7) insert—

“(8) No court shall make a section 8 order for a child to spend unsupervised time with or have unsupervised contact with a parent who is—

(a) awaiting trial, or on bail for, a domestic abuse offence, or

(b) involved in ongoing criminal proceedings for a domestic abuse offence.

(9) In subsection (8)—

“unsupervised” means where a court approved third party is not present at all times during contact with the parent to ensure the physical safety and emotional wellbeing of a child;

“domestic abuse offence” means an offence which the Crown Prosecution Service alleges to have involved domestic abuse.’”—(Peter Kyle.)

This 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.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

One of the people we have not mentioned in Committee so far is Sir James Munby. In his time as president of the family division of the High Court, he was a robust defender of it and a vocal proponent of reform. In engagement with and in the processes of Parliament, Sir James was fulsome in his advice and in answering questions. When I was campaigning for reform of cross-examination in the family courts, I had a meeting with Sir James in the High Court. I have said already in Committee that I have no legal training, and that is something I have never apologised for—in fact, at times like this and at that meeting, I found it a benefit. It gave me the opportunity to ask some pretty basic questions of one of the most pre-eminent lawyers in the land.

One thing that I wanted to ask back then was simple. Coming fresh, as I was at the time, to the challenges and the need for reform in the family courts, one thing that struck me, and that I could never ever understand, was the fact that someone who had committed the most horrendous crimes against their partner—battery, rape, serial abuse or coercion, stretching back sometimes years—had parental rights, to the point where they can be exercised time after time, sometimes even from prison, where they have been jailed for inflicting the abuse on the very family over whom they are exerting their rights. I simply could not understand that, and I had the privilege of putting it to Sir James.

We now come to the point in the Bill where we can talk about one particular aspect of that, because this new clause relates directly to the presumption that parental involvement furthers a child’s welfare when there has been domestic abuse. It would also prohibit the unsupervised contact for a parent awaiting trial, on bail for abuses offences, or involved in ongoing criminal proceedings for domestic abuse.

The use of force that is disproportionate but not—forgive me, my notes seem to be out of order.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

Of course. I am very grateful.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Perhaps the Chair could help me with this inquiry. My hon. Friend is moving the new clause, but I have a specific case that I might want to share with the Committee. Is that permitted, for both of us on the Front Bench to speak? I will not do it now, while he is in the middle of his speech, but I thought I could give him a minute.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

That sounds more like a point of order—you could try that again.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

On a point of order, Mr Bone. Will it be all right that I share something after the shadow Minister has spoken on the new clause?

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Interestingly—this is for new Members—in Committee, one advantage is that you can come back again. You are not restricted to one speech. It would be possible for the shadow Minister, Mr Kyle, to speak and to speak again. We can go on all night like this. That is fine.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

Perhaps the way forward, Mr Bone, is for me to resume my speech. I have now learned the lesson of putting page numbers on my speeches in future.

I draw the Committee’s attention to section 1(2A) of the Children Act 1989, which provides that the presumption that involvement from both parents is in the best interests of the child. That is the nub of the challenge we face.

We have come a long way in our understanding of the relationships within families and in abusive situations since that time. Section 1 of the Children Act states that the court must consider the welfare of the child, and practice direction 12J of the family procedure rules state that the court must consider domestic violence. However, an inconsistent understanding of practice direction 12J and the pro-contract approach taken by the family justice system have seemingly overtaken the need for any contact orders to put the child’s best interests first.

The Victims Commissioner has been persistent and outspoken on this issue. In her written submission to the Committee, she said that one of her major concerns was that the Bill does not

“Create a presumption of no contact or parental responsibility where there has been a conviction, restraining order, findings by the Family Court. This could be rebutted & overturned in exceptional circumstances, but a risk assessment must be conducted first”.

She felt so strongly about this that she wrote to the Home Secretary in October, saying in the strongest possible terms that she saw the need to prohibit unsupervised contact between a parent who is on bail for domestic abuse-related offences for which criminal proceedings are ongoing. In our evidence session just a few weeks ago, she told us that she was

“very troubled by the presumption of shared parenting that seems to trump practically everything else in the family court.”––[Official Report, Domestic Abuse Public Bill Committee, 4 June 2020; c. 63, Q154.]

We created the position of Victims Commissioner and we are in the process of creating the position of a domestic abuse commissioner. We must listen to them when they speak with such clarity and expertise, and when they are so singular in their advice. It would go profoundly against the position that we have given the commissioner to disregard such singular advice.

In one study conducted by Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, two-thirds of the 216 children contact cases in the sample involved allegations of domestic abuse, yet in 23% of the cases, unsupervised contact was ordered at the first hearing. I simply cannot see how we can find a way of contextualising that statistic in a way that makes it acceptable—I simply do not understand. The results of that can be tragic: analysis by the “Victoria Derbyshire” show and Women’s Aid showed that between 2006 and 2019, at least 21 children were killed during contact with fathers who were perpetrators of domestic abuse.

The introduction of the presumption of parental involvement has confused the position in cases involving domestic abuse. The new clause would introduce an explicit statutory framework to make it clear that, when there has been an allegation, admission or finding of domestic abuse towards the child or the other parents, the presumption that the involvement of a parent will further a child’s welfare does not apply.

A mandatory restriction for those on bail for domestic abuse offences is necessary, as research conducted by Women’s Aid and Queen Mary University of London found examples in which perpetrators of domestic abuse who were on bail for violent offences against non-abusive parents were allowed into the family courts to argue for contact with their children. In at least one case, unsupervised contact was awarded by the court to the perpetrator, who was on bail at that time.

We have discussed at length the impact that domestic abuse has on children, and the new clause can further that discussion. Child contact is an incredibly sensitive issue. I know that the Government have sought to address it in Committee by extending the flexibility of domestic abuse protection orders and the way in which they can be used by the courts. I ask the Government to reconsider the presumption that parental involvement is beneficial to the child’s welfare, especially in the light of the discussions that we have had on the effects of domestic abuse on children. With this new clause, we are explicitly not saying that no parent, in any circumstance, can have access to their children; all we are doing is removing the presumption that access is good. All we are saying—what we will achieve with the new clause—is that it has to be debated and assessed by the court in neutral terms. Is it good or detrimental to their welfare? That is a debate that should be had in neutral terms in every single circumstance.

As it stands, the presumption is pernicious. It leads to too many children being made vulnerable and too many survivors of domestic abuse being made to feel insecure and threatened. I deeply hope that the Minister can reassure us that change is on the way. I know that we debate and have this to and fro—some arguments have fuller merit than others at times like this—but I deeply hope that he has considered this issue and that he will show flexibility, either now or in the next stages of our consideration of the Bill.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office) 3:15 pm, 17th June 2020

The case that I am about to read out has been sent to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Cheltenham. I feel for him, because we can all get him to agree to things while he is not here. It is a bit like when you do not turn up to a Labour party branch meeting, and you end up being given every single position—you end up being chair and secretary.

The case is one of the most stark examples I have ever heard of where the presumption is going wrong. People like me are often accused—or things are spray-painted across the front of my office—of trying to stop parents being able to see their children. In fact, this is very much rooted in the welfare of the child. That is all we are seeking: that the assessment of the welfare of the child should be the most fundamental thing.

In this case study a service user made a call to Solace, a women’s aid organisation advice line, during the week commencing 8 June 2020—only last week. She is going through a child contact hearing but there is also a separate criminal investigation of child sexual abuse by the child’s father. In December 2019, in a hearing at which both parties were unrepresented, allegations were made that the father had sexually abused his seven-year-old daughter.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Order. We are not straying into matters that are sub judice, are we?

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Definitely not, Mr Bone; I checked with all those involved in the case, and it is done—worry not. I have just been sending wild WhatsApp messages to that very effect. Also, I shall not mention anybody’s names or those of the courts.

The allegations were that the father had exposure his genitals to his daughter and that he had been sucking her toes and fingers while she was asleep. The judge said that if the father stopped doing this he could continue to have unsupervised contact with his daughter. The judge commented that when he was a barrister he had successfully ensured that a convicted paedophile could have unsupervised access to his children. The mother tried to tell the judge that the father has a history of domestic abuse, but the judge replied that she did not look like a victim of domestic abuse. He said that the father’s behaviour sounded more like a man losing his temper, rather than domestic violence. The judge dismissed the request for supervised contact between father and daughter.

In January 2020, allegations were made about the father’s sexual assault on his daughter. A criminal investigation into child sexual exploitation is ongoing but unsupervised contact is still ordered. This woman has no legal representation. She is not eligible for legal aid due to the means test. She has joint property ownership but no financial means to instruct a solicitor. Solace has described the severe impact this has had on the survivor: a complete distrust of the justice system—she felt like she was the one on trial even though she was there as the survivor and a mother trying to protect her daughter from her predatory father. She was met with disdain and not believed, whereas the father was met with sympathy.

I am almost certain that the Minister will refer to—the hon. Member for Cheltenham would have referred to it—practice direction 12J, which is meant to deal with this so that it does not happen in courts. It is routinely ignored in many cases. In this example, where presumption overrules even the child’s best interests, it is clear that there is a serious problem in our current system.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The hon. Members for Hove and for Birmingham, Yardley have set out fully the legal frameworks that exist, and I will not repeat them. I will bring to the Committee’s attention the fact that the current legislation places absolute primacy on the welfare of the child and does not seek to fetter judicial discretion regarding the factors they can take into account when making an order under the legislation.

I appreciate that this is a sensitive and complex issue. That is why the Ministry of Justice last year established an expert panel on how the family courts deal with allegations of risk of harm in private law children proceedings. The panel has considered the issue of parental contact, informed by the over 1,200 submissions of evidence it received. Its recommendations will be published in the coming weeks.

I have no doubt that the hon. Members for Hove and for Birmingham, Yardley, and other members of the Committee, will want to return to this matter once they have had the opportunity to consider the expert panel’s report. On that basis, I invite the hon. Member for Hove to withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

As the Minister expects, I will withdraw the new clause, because we do want to assess that. We want to ensure that this issue gets as much debate between us as possible before the next stage, as well as at the next stage and beyond. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.