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“What about my right not to be abused?” Domestic abuse, human rights and the family courts

The family courts should be a place of safety, where children’s rights are put first and where the concerns and fears of survivors of domestic abuse are listened to and respected. However, this report represents a stark reminder of what happens when this is not the case, and child contact proceedings instead become traumatic and dangerous environments for both survivors and their children.

The new research outlined in this report, undertaken in partnership with Queen Mary University of London as part of the next phase of our Child First campaign, looks at domestic abuse and child contact proceedings through the lens of human rights. Human rights are for everyone, and while the family courts are an obvious venue where human rights matter – after all, they make life-altering decisions about children’s lives and children’s safety – in practice, human rights are not equally accessible by all in the family courts.

The research uncovers a glaring gender gap in the way rights are used by applicants, with non-abusive parents thinking ‘child first,’ while the focus of perpetrators of abuse remains ‘me first’. Echoing this disparity, the research found clear examples of family courts prioritising perpetrators of domestic abuse’s rights to family life over survivors’ and children’s rights to life and to be free from degrading treatment.

On top of this, the research reveals horrifying and deep-seated discrimination against women and mothers. In the worst cases, this discrimination allows perpetrators to continue their abuse, and judges, magistrates and lawyers to participate in grotesquely unequal treatment.

Our findings are illuminating because we hear directly from women about their experiences of the family courts, and through their testimonies we learn how the gender inequalities that brought them there as survivors of domestic abuse can be replicated in the courtroom.

The research highlights the damaging effects of a toxic combination: a lack of understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse along with incorrect interpretations of human rights. This combination contributes to what survivors tell us is their most common experience of family courts: an acutely negative and traumatising one.

In addition to making these deeply disturbing findings visible, this report gives us a guide to the next steps necessary to make family courts safe places where justice is done. The forthcoming Domestic Abuse Bill provides a landmark opportunity to improve the response to domestic abuse. The government has proposed a clear set of criminal justice measures to strengthen police and courts’ ability to hold perpetrators accountable and keep victims safe. But family justice matters too. This research demonstrates clear and consistent failings of the family courts to ensure that survivors and their children are safe and able to access their rights. The new legislation offers the opportunity to ensure that survivors receive a just response across all jurisdictions. In this report we make some practical recommendations on how this can be done, including banning crossexamination of survivors by their abusers, and ensuring survivors can access special measures, whichever courtroom they are in.

Only by challenging the inequalities and discrimination within the culture of the family courts, and promoting the understanding of human rights that apply to all, can we make sure that ‘child first’ becomes the fundamental approach in child contact proceedings - not just in rhetoric, but also in reality.