09:06, May 28 127 0 theguardian.com

2019-05-28 09:06:07
Family courts failing victims of abuse and rape, say experts calling for inquiry

Victims’ representatives and lawyers specialising in childcare have called for an independent inquiry into failures by the family courts to deal with domestic violence.

More than 30 leading experts, including the next victim’s commissioner, Dame Vera Baird QC, have written to the justice secretary, David Gauke, urging him to upgrade a departmental review announced last week.

The Ministry of Justice agreed to take action after more than 120 MPs called on the government to open up the family courts to greater scrutiny, to ban abusers from exploiting parental access rights to have contact with children conceived through rape, and said victims were being retraumatised in court by those who attacked them. It was initiated by the shadow policing minister, Louise Haigh.

The MoJ has established a panel of experts to review how the family courts protect children and parents in cases of domestic abuse. It will look particularly at the way judges operate “practice direction 12J”, which governs how children are protected in domestic abuse cases, and report back in three months.

But the letter, coordinated by two prominent family law solicitors, Cris McCurley of law firm Ben Hoare Bell and Jenny Beck of Beck Fitzgerald, says 12 weeks is insufficient to examine the extent of the problems and that family lawyers are not due to be consulted by the review.

Among the signatories are Baird, who takes over as the official victim’s commissioner in June, Harriet Wistrich of the Centre for Women’s Justice as well as Olive Craig and Mandip Ghai from Rights of Women.

The letter says: “Practice direction 12J is often ignored or ‘nodded through’ without any proper risk assessment, leaving women and children vulnerable. Where a fact-finding hearing is listed, the victim is increasingly being told to limit the number of allegations that can be considered by the judge, meaning that there is not a full forensic and expert assessment of the risks.

“The impact of coercive control, emotional abuse, economic abuse and other forms of non-physical violence are routinely overlooked. Twelve weeks is not enough time to properly evaluate the reasons why the system is currently placing children and victims at unacceptable risk. Any inquiry must be independent if justice is to be seen to be done.”

When the MoJ review was announced the justice minister, Paul Maynard, said: “This review will help us better understand victims’ experiences of the system, and make sure the family court is never used to coerce or retraumatise those who have been abused.”

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