19:07, October 14 63 0 theguardian.com

2018-10-14 19:07:10
Parents 'weaponising' domestic violence orders, claims charity

The number of non-molestation orders – issued by courts to prevent domestic abuse – has rocketed by 37% over the past five years because they are being exploited to secure legal aid, according to the charity Families Needs Fathers.

The “weaponisation” of court procedures by “angry and vengeful parents” is encouraging false allegations and fuelling conflict between separating couples, the head of the organisation has claimed.

The figures are based on the latest quarterly statistics produced by the Ministry of Justice. Since 2013, when the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) came into force the number of non-molestation orders issued by English and Welsh courts has increased from fewer than 20,000 to more than 26,000 a year.

That increase, equivalent to a 37.3% rise, has been linked to the withdrawal of legal aid in all divorce cases except those where there is evidence of domestic violence. As many as 80% of all family law cases now involve one party who is unrepresented.

Changes in legislation designed to save money have had unintended consequences, Families Need Fathers allege, destroying healthy child-parent relationships.

Non-molestation orders – granted on the civil level of proof, the balance of probabilities – can be used as evidence of domestic violence and therefore as evidence for obtaining legal aid. In most cases they are granted to women.

Women’s aid organisations have also been campaigning against restrictions on legal aid. They question, however, whether there has been false reporting to secure it. Other groups have suggested that increases in applications for non-molestation orders may be related to greater awareness of domestic abuse and of the measures available to combat it.

Jerry Karlin, chair of Families Need Fathers, said: “We have known for some time that people were exaggerating or making bogus allegations against former partners to secure legal aid in their private family disputes.

“We now know how widespread this is, and we have seen how this appears to depend on where you live … We need checks and balances to expose and discourage the weaponisation of the courts by angry and vengeful parents.”

However, Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, questioned the link between the rise in non-molestation orders and legal aid cuts. She said: “We are not aware of any cases where mothers have falsely applied for non-molestation orders. We know from our work with survivors that non-molestation orders can be difficult to obtain and the court process itself can be distressing for victims.

“Given that the police are recording record numbers of domestic abuse-related incidents and offences, we would expect the number of non-molestation orders being applied for and granted to increase … as more victims have the courage to report to the police and seek protection through the justice system.”

She said official reports showed false domestic abuse allegations were rare, adding: “It is misleading to suggest that this increase in non-molestation orders granted by the courts is a result of false allegations of domestic abuse to secure legal aid, as we are not aware of any evidence to support this.

“It sends out a dangerous message to survivors: it tells them that they may not be believed and this can deter women who have experienced domestic abuse from speaking out and accessing the help they desperately need.”

Elspeth Thomson, co-chair of the legal aid committee of Resolution, an organisation that represents family lawyers, said: “Since the cuts to legal aid came in, it has undoubtedly become harder for victims of domestic abuse to secure representation. Only recently has the government widened the evidence gateway – as a result of pressure from organisations like Resolution – to help more victims access legal aid to help them escape abusive relationships.

“With regards to non-molestation orders, there is a legal process to go through and the court needs to be satisfied the claim is valid. Nobody wants to see these figures rise, but unless the government reversed cuts to legal aid, it is unfortunately a by-product of their failed reforms.”

The MoJ has launched a review of the impact of Laspo, which is expected to report by the end of the year.

An MoJ spokesperson said: “Non-molestation orders are an important means of protecting individuals in abusive situations. When deciding whether to grant a non-molestation order, the judge will consider all the circumstances, including the need to secure the health, safety and wellbeing of the applicant and any children.”

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