Survivors of domestic abuse have called for a radical overhaul in the family court system after a report, released today, found systemic gender discrimination in the family courts is putting children at risk.
The report, from the charity Women’s Aid and Queen Mary University London, found that harmful attitudes towards domestic abuse survivors from lawyers, the judiciary, and employees of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) are leading to women being discriminated against in the family court, which in turn is putting children at risk.
One-quarter of survivors who responded to the survey said that they had been cross-examined by their abusive ex-partner during the court hearings; more than 60% said that there were no special measures in place at the court – such as separate waiting rooms, different entry and exit times, or a screen or video link – to prevent them from having to come into contact with their abuser.
Almost 70% of the women surveyed said that their abusive ex-partner had also been emotionally abusive towards their child or children, while almost two in five said their abusive ex-partner had also been physically abusive to the children.
Survivors said they were seen as unstable by judges, barristers, and Cafcass officers, or were blamed for their abuse, or disbelieved.
Rachael, whose real name is also not being used, was taken to court by her ex-partner, who wanted access to their child. He has a string of previous convictions for violence against women and men, and had served time in prison for attacking her while she was pregnant. She also had a restraining order against him and had reported him to the police several times since his release from prison.
“I thought, I don’t have a criminal record, the justice system in this country is amazing. They will see him for what he is,” she said. “I had evidence, police statements. I thought, There’s no way he’ll get access to my child. I went in there confident that no one else would allow him access, but it didn’t go that way.”
The court ruled in her ex’s favour, which Rachael said put both her and her child’s safety at risk. The judge insisted that her ex-partner knew which school their child was attending after she moved house to protect herself, and granted her violent former partner supervised contact, which would then lead to unsupervised contact.
Rachael was also cross-examined by her former partner in court for three hours, which she said was “the worst experience of my life”.
Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: “We know that perpetrators of domestic abuse are using the family courts to continue to control and abuse victims, and that the sexist attitudes entrenched within the family courts are enabling that abuse.”