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Domestic Abuse - does the Court's new guidance go far enough in protecting children?

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In October 2017, important changes were made to the Family Court’s guidance for children cases where domestic abuse has been alleged. The guidance was issued after widespread criticism that the family courts were not going far enough to protect the victims of domestic abuse and their children. However, does the new guidance really change how children cases are dealt with? And does it go far enough to protect those most vulnerable?

The new guidance

The guidance has been altered in a number of different ways but amongst the most important changes are:

  1. The term domestic violence has been replaced by “domestic abuse” to widen the definition. There is also a focus on culturally specific forms of abuse (such as abandonment abroad which now falls under the definition of domestic abuse and therefore the ambit of the revised practice direction).
  2. Under the new guidance, Courts have to consider whether granting contact could put the parent with care at risk from harm. Rather than simply considering the risk of harm to the child, this wider focus means a greater consideration of the wellbeing and safety of the parent alleging abuse. The Court can therefore refuse to order contact if it will put the child’s other parent at risk.
  3. Another significant change to the guidance relates to interim contact orders (orders that are made by the Court whilst the proceedings are ongoing). For the first time, there is a presumption against interim contact in cases involving domestic abuse. This is a very important change.  It means that the parent being accused of domestic abuse has to satisfy the Court that the risk of harm is at a low enough level for contact to be ordered. This has important ramifications on how cases are run and will it is hoped provide greater peace of mind for parents who are in the midst of ongoing proceedings.
  4. The Courts now must consider whether it is appropriate to depart from the presumption that it is in the best interests of the child to have involvement from both parents, especially in cases involving allegations of domestic abuse.

Whilst these alterations mark a step in the right direction, does the guidance empower the Courts to truly protect families who have suffered domestic abuse? There may still be some way to go. The issued guidance has been diluted somewhat in comparison to the recommendations contained in the 2016 investigative report by Mr Justice Cobb (a High Court, family law Judge), which included the recommendation that alleged abusers should not personally be able to cross examine the alleged victim in Court. This recommendation has not been implemented despite its popularity. There may well be further amendments to Court guidance in the future, now that the spotlight is shining firmly on domestic abuse cases and the way in which the Court deals with them.

If you would like any further advice regarding this, or any other, family law issue please contact a member of our specialist Family Law Team.