The Memo: Children’s safety concern over family courts failings

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Children’s safety concern over family courts failings

Chelsey Stanborough – 28 August 2023

Believe it or not, domestic abuse can only be prosecuted in the Crown Court if it can be classified as actual bodily harm. For ‘lesser’ offences, adult victims can seek out Domestic Violence Protection Notices (DVPN) and Domestic Violence Protection Orders (DVPO), which put in place protective measures for a victim following an incident or threat of violence by someone above the age of eighteen. If breached, both do reach the magistrate's court as a contempt of court. For children, there are different orders of protection from domestic abuse: Child Arrangements Orders, Prohibited Steps Orders and Specific Issue Orders. If these are breached, they are encouraged to settle informally outside the courts to minimise the amount of distress these cases place on children, before finally resorting to applying for a breach in the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS).

All victims of domestic abuse have a right to legal aid. Any caregiver can apply for this for their child but must provide evidence of the risk of abuse. Back in 2018, the Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) Regulations 2012 dropped the specification of needing to collect evidence over five years to no time limit. However, before a child can receive any orders of protection, they must still provide large amounts of evidence. What’s more, cases where no further action was taken will not suffice, so accusers must bring evidence of action like police cautions.

Despite the changes implemented to help support children throughout the process, the domestic abuse commissioner for England and Wales has voiced the need for urgent reforms to the family justice system. They claim that a lack of funding and support creates an environment that can cause further harm to children by forcing them to relive their trauma. A recent survey found that 80% of legal practitioners felt that family courts are highly likely to re-traumatise those who have experienced domestic abuse. It also found that claims of parent alienation (where a child unjustifiably rejects a parent because of manipulation of their other parent) have large implications of the parents’ ability to report domestic abuse to ensure safe arrangements for the children, which is needed for legal aid.

In the new report, the commissioner requests the government remove the test for legal aid for all victims of domestic abuse and provide extra funding for a survivor to receive a specialist domestic abuse worker to support them throughout the case. There has been a push for change of narrative, with a child-centric approach needed to plug the gaps in the system’s provision for child victims.