Domestic violence campaigners raised concerns about delays in the plans to protect children from violent parents during custody battles. This comes as changes to family court guidelines were announced in January but 6 months later, they were still not signed by the government. The Ministry of Justice said the necessary changes are being worked on and are close to being finalised.
The planned changes follow a campaign launched by charity Woman’s Aid in January 2016 to put pressure on changing Practice Direction 12 J, which is the guidance to be met by judges handling cases in which domestic violence is involved. This resulted in Lord Justice Cobb carrying out a review and agreeing to some amendments.
The charity explain this is crucial to be improved as, in 11 years, 20 children were murdered by parents who were known to be perpetrators of domestic abuse during contact visits and that ‘every day’s delay risked lives’. The majority of these cases followed a court order forcing the children to have contact visits or even live with an abusive parent.
The fundamental aim of the changes is to get rid of unsafe arrangements.
The most important change is to no longer have the general presumption that there should be “contact at all costs” with both parents, as the parent who poses a risk of harm to the child or another parent should be excluded. Cobb also announced a stop to the practice of cross-examination of victims by alleged perpetrators in court, which is already banned in criminal courts.
Women’s Aid chief executive Katie Ghose told the Victoria Derbyshire programme:
“Every single day of the week there are women and children in vulnerable situations going through the family courts who are being affected and put at risk by this delay.”
“All that good work has been done to give the toolkits to judges in the family courts, but it just needs to be signed off by the government.”
Additionally, Women’s Aid and Caffcass have found that 62% of applications to the family court about where a child should live or spend time feature allegations of domestic abuse. The research was published after a study which examined 216 child contact cases, drawn from a sample of more than 15,000.
The research also showed 89% of cases with domestic abuse allegations also involved other safeguarding concerns such as substance abuse or mental health problems.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said:
“The welfare of children is the utmost priority of family courts.”
“Officials are finalising the necessary changes with the judiciary. These are very sensitive cases and it is only right that the rules are very carefully considered.”