09:27, February 19 221 0 theguardian.com

2020-02-19 09:27:04
Family courts not safe for domestic violence victims, lawyers say

The family courts are not a safe place for victims of domestic violence because some judges there hold “outdated views” on sexual violence and issues of consent, according to a letter signed by 130 lawyers and professionals.

The public intervention comes in response to a widely criticised judgment last year by Judge Robin Tolson QC in the family court, in which he ruled that since a woman had not taken physical steps to stop her partner from assaulting her it did not constitute rape.

Last month, Tolson’s decision was overturned by the high court. Ms Justice Russell said the judge’s approach towards the issue of consent was “manifestly at odds” with current jurisprudence.

Russell suggested training may be needed for family court judges when considering allegations of sexual assault.

The letter from victims’ organisations and lawyers dealing with family court cases on Wednesday goes further, calling for Tolson’s current cases to be reviewed.

Addressed to the justice secretary, Robert Buckland QC, and the president of the high court’s family division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, it was released to the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme.

The letter states: “We are concerned however that training alone will not fix the problem. We are aware that other family judges hold similar ‘outdated’ views.

“There are wider systemic issues including some lack of understanding of domestic abuse and serious sexual assault, and a failure to apply the practice directions to afford victims a fair trial.

“This is despite training and clear rules. It leaves children and women at risk of serious harm and undermines the credibility of our legal system. Increasingly, the courts are no longer seen as a safe place for women who have been abused.”

Among the organisations that have signed the letter are representatives from the charities the Centre for Women’s Justice and Rights of Women.

The letter calls for rigorous training for all family law judges on the appropriate approach to be taken in cases involving domestic abuse and serious sexual assault allegations.

The training, it urges, should include “how perpetrators and victims of trauma often present when giving evidence, the meaning of consent and free will, and how to identify all forms of abuse”.

The letter was written by a barrister, Dr Charlotte Proudman, and the solicitors Cris McCurley and Jenny Beck, who deal with family court cases.

The judicial communications office said: “Prior to the delivery of the appeal judgment in JH vs MF, the president of the family division had asked the Judicial College to provide additional bespoke training in dealing with cases of sexually related assault for judges trying domestic abuse cases in the family court.



“The enhanced training will be delivered (initially electronically) from May 2020 and from then on will be included in every continuation training course for the family judiciary.”

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