In 2019 the Ministry of Justice established a panel of experts to gather evidence on how the family courts protect children and parents in private law children cases (i.e. disputes between parents about the arrangements for their children), with regard to domestic abuse and other serious offences.
The panel became known as the 'Harm Panel' and their report, published in 2020, became known as the 'Harm Report'.
The report found that the evidence submitted to the panel "unveiled deep-seated and systemic problems with how the family courts identify, assess and manage risk to children and adults."
These problems, they said, were arising from four overarching, systemic barriers to the family courts' ability to respond consistently and effectively to domestic abuse and other serious forms of harm:
- Resource constraints affecting all aspects of private law proceedings.
- A culture in the courts promoting contact between fathers and children "at all costs", ahead of considerations of safety of the mother and children, and the minimisation of abuse.
- A lack of coordination between the courts and other agencies and organisations dealing with domestic abuse.
- The problem of an adversarial system, which pitches one party against the other, rather than simply enquiring into the facts.
The Harm Report made a number of recommendations to address the systemic problems it had identified, including changing the way in which the courts work, improving safety at court, and enhancing the voice of the child.
In response to the Harm Panel's findings and recommendations, the government published an implementation plan in June 2020, which set out "the first, immediate steps" to address some of the concerns raised in the Harm Report.
Lack of progress
Now Women's Aid, the national charity working to end domestic abuse against women and children, has published its own report into the implementation of the Harm Panel recommendations.
The report has found that the justice system is still failing domestic abuse survivors and their children. It reveals that despite some progress, not enough work has been done towards the transformed system that the Harm Panel recommended, and that there is evidence of progress stalling, even reversing.
Women's Aid state that domestic abuse survivors and support workers told them that they have continued to be disbelieved, that children have continued to be forced into unsafe contact arrangements with abusive parents, and that perpetrators have continued to use child arrangement proceedings as a form of post-separation abuse.
Key findings included:
- All of the survivors contributing to the report felt that their children's thoughts, wishes or feelings had not been listened to or acted upon;
- An underlying culture of misogyny, mother-blaming and victim-blaming continues in the family courts;
- Women continue to be accused of "parental alienation" when they raise valid concerns around domestic abuse and child safety;
- Family court proceedings continue to be trauma-inducing, rather than trauma-aware.
Farah Nazeer, chief executive of Women's Aid, commented:
"The current system, based on misogyny, victim-blaming, and a lack of understanding trauma is as tragic as it is unacceptable: we must show women and children that they will be listened to, believed and supported.
"We call on the government to ensure the Harm Panel recommendations are actioned as a matter of urgency- there can be no further delay. We are ready and willing to work with agencies and organisations across the family courts system to ensure progress: only by working together can we achieve the results we need. We know that the implementation of the Harm Panel report can deliver real change, and at Women's Aid, we will not stop campaigning until all women and children are safe."
There have been changes in the family justice system over the last two years. For example, measures have been taken to improve safety at court, and new 'pathfinder' courts are being trialled in courts in Dorset and North Wales, as we have reported here previously. The family justice system does accept the recommendations of the Harm Panel, but obviously progress is slow, and meanwhile more mothers and children are being failed by the system.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.