Last month a panel of experts was set up to review how the family courts protect children and parents in cases of domestic abuse and other serious offences. The project is due to last for 3 months, with the aim of ensuring that the family court works in the explicit interests of the child, including physical safety, health and well-being. The panel will include senior members of the judiciary, leading academics and charities.
The setting up of the panel is a response to the public outcry about the deaths of children at the hands of parents with whom the court had ordered contact. A public call for evidence is going to be launched, asking for those with direct involvement to share their experiences.
Specifically, the panel will examine the court rules about child arrangement cases where domestic abuse is a factor, look at the court’s use of orders preventing people from making further applications without leave (section 91(14) orders); and gather evidence about the impact on the child and the victim in cases where child contact is sought by someone alleged to have, or who has, committed domestic abuse or other relevant offences.
The draft Domestic Abuse Bill, published in January, includes measures to ban abusers directly cross-examining their victim in family courts. In addition, the government has made a number of other commitments, including making £8 million available to support children affected by domestic abuse and about £20 million for organisations supporting the victims of domestic abuse. The Prime Minister has, in addition, committed the government to creating a new legal duty on councils to provide secure homes for victims of domestic abuse, with funding, although how much funding is not yet known.
Rachel Dickinson, President of the Association of Directors for Children’s Services has criticised the government’s approach, suggesting that the issue needs to be tackled as a public health one, given the lifelong impact that childhood experience of parental conflict and domestic abuse can have. She argues that “a “collaborative, cross-government strategy for tackling domestic abuse is urgently required. This should seek to raise awareness, enable more effective identification and provision of support at the earliest possible opportunity and, crucially, prevent domestic abuse taking place. A national public service campaign to tackle public attitudes whilst deterring perpetrators is overdue and should be at the heart of a public health approach to turn the tide on this silent epidemic.”
Women’s Aid, in their response to the Bill, identify some issues where the government needs to go far further, many of which overlap with concerns identified by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights.
For those interested in the law on international child protection issues, the Permanent Bureau of the Hague Convention has announced that the Practical Handbook on the Operation of the 1996 Hague Child Protection Convention is now available online in 24 languages. The Convention is intended to help children who are the subject of international parental disputes about where children live or how often they see each parent, children who are abducted and children who relocate internationally. The Handbook is not short (215 pages), but it is free.