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In May 2019, the Ministry of Justice established a panel of experts to lead a review into how the family courts deal with risk of harm to children and parents in private law children cases involving domestic abuse and other serious offences. The panel held a call for evidence over the summer of 2019, which received submissions from over 1,200 individuals and organisations with experience of the family justice system. As well as receiving testimonies through written submissions, the panel held a series of focus groups and roundtables across England and Wales. It is due to the wealth of evidence gathered that the panel took the necessary time to evaluate and discuss their findings, which I now present to the House.
I would first like to acknowledge the dedication of all those who work in the family justice system. I have seen first-hand how they have to make difficult decisions about the best interests of the child with the information available to them. It is a challenging job at the centre of an often painful dispute between two parents, and I hope that our implementation plan will reassure them that we value their commitment and will support them in their roles.
But there is more to do. I welcome the panel’s report, and am incredibly grateful to all panel members for their time and expertise. I have carefully considered their conclusions and am determined to take action to improve the experience of survivors of domestic abuse in our family courts.
This report lays bare many hard truths about long-standing failings in the family justice system, especially in protecting the survivors of abuse and their children from harm. It is not a comfortable read. The testimonies in the report show that there are some fundamental issues that we must address in order to improve the experience and ensure the safety of all participants in the family justice system.
I want to make it clear that this is not acceptable, and that while these issues largely predate this Government, we have a strong and unwavering commitment to ensure domestic abuse survivors are better protected. This is not only to help those who have been directly affected, but also for their children, who should always be at the heart of any decision made in the family court.
The publication of this report provides a unique opportunity for the family justice system to reform how it manages cases involving children. The report is the springboard for the actions we will take to better protect and support children and domestic abuse victims throughout private family law proceedings.
The Domestic Abuse Bill will enable us to make some of the immediate changes called for in the panel’s report, alongside other measures which will help to ensure that victims have the confidence to come forward and report their experiences. As recommended by the panel, we will use the Bill to extend automatic eligibility for special measures to victims of domestic abuse in the family courts. The Bill will also ban cross-examination by perpetrators of domestic abuse in the family courts.
We also have committed to invest more widely in support for victims of domestic abuse, including £35 million announced alongside the Bill to support victims and their children, and an additional £76 million of extra funding that we announced to support survivors of domestic abuse, sexual violence, modern slavery and vulnerable children and their families during the current pandemic.
But we acknowledge that, in light of the panel’s findings, this does not go far enough. And that is why we are publishing an Implementation Plan alongside this report. This details the first steps we will take across the family justice system to take forward the recommendations of the panel and make the changes that are needed.
In response to hearing that the adversarial nature of the family courts can contribute to further harm to victims of abuse or their children, I am pleased to announce that we will trial a different ‘investigative’ approach within our forthcoming pilot of Integrated Domestic Abuse Courts. This approach will seek to ensure that all parties in proceedings are safe and able to provide evidence on an equal footing, without the retraumatising effects of being in court with an abusive ex-partner.
We are committed to making it easier for judges to apply ‘barring orders’, under section 91(14) of the Children Act 1989, to prevent abusive ex-partners repeatedly dragging a victim back to court.
We will also look to improve how the family courts gather the wishes and feelings of the children at the heart of proceedings, to ensure no child is overlooked during the process. Alongside this, I acknowledge the panel’s conclusion that the presumption of parental involvement can detract from the child’s welfare and safety, and so will review this urgently.
Finally, we are working with colleagues across the family justice system to improve training on domestic abuse, to address gaps where appropriate, and to provide professionals with the tools to effectively support vulnerable parties.
The report is built upon the direct experiences of hundreds of victims of domestic abuse who responded to our call for evidence. There will be many others who were unable to speak out, and I want to thank each person who came forward and provided their testimony to the panel. Each had a unique experience, but together they showed that this is a problem that thousands of people experience. Thanks to them, we have a unique opportunity now to address these issues in a meaningful and long-lasting way.
The report and Implementation Plan can be found at the following link: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/assessing-risk-of-harm-to-children-and-parents-in-private-law-children-cases