UK judges change court rules on child contact for violent fathers
Reforms aim to end presumption that a father must have contact with a child when there is evidence of domestic abuse
Senior judges are taking steps to end the presumption that a father must have contact with a child where there is evidence of domestic abuse that would put the child or mother at risk.
The reforms are to be introduced in the family courts after campaigning by the charity Women’s Aid, which identified that 19 children have been killed in the last 10 years by their violent fathers after being given contact with them by judges.
The changes include a demand from one of the most senior family court judges for all the judiciary to have further training on domestic violence and to act to ensure women and children are protected.
Cobb said: “It is indeed most disturbing to note that for at least 12 children [in seven families], of the 19 children killed … contact with the perpetrator [the father] was arranged through the family courts.
“For six families, this contact was arranged in family court hearings [two of these were interim orders], and for one family, contact was decided as part of the arrangements for a non-molestation order and occupational order.”
Since its report on the child murders last year, Women’s Aid has identified another case in which a child was murdered by a father after being given contact via the family court. The charity is presenting their updated report to the prime minister in Downing Street on Monday.
Cobb’s reforms were endorsed on Friday by the President of the family division, Sir James Munby, who praised both Women’s Aid and the “hard hitting articles in the Guardian” for highlighting the issues.
The changes are contained in amendments to judicial guidance known as practice direction 12J. A key change announced by Cobb was that the presumption in the family court that there should be “contact at all costs” with both parents would be scrapped. He said it should be excluded in domestic violence cases where involvement of a parent in a child’s life would place the child or other parent at risk of harm.
He also said judges needed to be more alert to perpetrators of domestic violence using the courts as a way to continue their abuse. “Family court judges should be sure that they understand the new offence of coercion [controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship],” he said.
Cobb called for judges to be more alert to how violent men could use the access within the courts to assault their former partners, putting forward a proposal for courts to consider more carefully the waiting arrangements before a hearing, and arrangements for entering and exiting the court building.
Munby pointed out that austerity measures had impacted on courts’ ability to protect vulnerable witnesses. He said in his own court in the Royal Courts of Justice in London there was no safe waiting room and no video link.
“The problem, of course, is one of resources, and responsibility lies … ultimately with ministers. More, much more, needs to be done to bring the family courts up to an acceptable standard, indeed to match the facilities and ‘kit’ available in the crown court,” said Munby.
In his report on Friday, Cobb said it was essential that family court judges used the practice direction as it had been amended.
“By this report, I wish to highlight the concerns raised by Rights of Women, Women’s Aid … I hope that positive steps can now be taken to address in the family court the problem, long since addressed in the criminal court, of the alleged victims of domestic abuse being directly questioned by their unrepresented alleged abusers.”
Polly Neate, director of Women’s Aid, welcomed the changes. She said: “There should never be a presumption of contact where one parent is known to be a perpetrator of domestic abuse, as is made clear today.
“We urge the Family Procedure Rule Committee, and lord chancellor and secretary of state for justice, Liz Truss MP, to agree the new practice direction, with all of the changes set out by Mr Justice Cobb, without delay.”