Unsupervised contact is regularly granted to partners with a history of domestic violence, claims a disturbing new report published by legal rights charity Rights of Women and the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit (CWASU).
The report, entitled Picking up the Pieces, is based on the specific experiences of women living in London who had been in abusive relationships, as well as the legal professionals working with them. It claims that many courts do not properly allegations of domestic violence, minimise its impact and allow risky contact with violent partners.
The report claims bluntly that courts often allow contact with abusive partners, despite the distress of children, injunctions and even criminal convictions for domestic abuse.
Some extraordinary claims and ones that no one working within the family law system will enjoy reading. Can it really be true, for example, that most judges presiding over these cases do not fully comply with judicial practice direction 12J? This requires judges to weigh up a number of issues when considering allegations of domestic violence in residence and contact orders – for example the effect of the alleged violence on the resident parent and the child, and the motivations of the parent who is seeking contact.
And yet, when the legal professionals surveyed were asked whether judges, in their experience, routinely followed this guidance, only ten per cent said they did. An overwhelming 74 per cent said they thought judges only “partially” complied with it.
As for the motivations of estranged partners seeking contact, a massive 79 per cent of the solicitors and barristers surveyed thought that power and control was a primary motivator for abusive partners seeking contact with their estranged families. Such professionals are exposed to families riven by domestic violence on a regular basis, so they are in a good position to make such judgements.
Elsewhere, the report also claims that 74 per cent of the women surveyed were often worried for their safety when attending court to discuss contact – fearing violence from their intimidating former partners even in the midst of judges and barristers. What a sad insight into the capacity of some men to cause fear.
As regular readers of this blog will know, I have written about family mediation before and it seems particularly pointless in cases where domestic violence has been alleged.
Picking Up The Pieces is brisk about mediation in such instances, pointing out the obvious risk of exposing women to further intimidation and empowering partners guilty of abuse. As the report rightly points out, successful mediation depends on an equal status and equal bargaining power between the parties. There is no such equilibrium in domestic violence cases.
And yet more than a quarter of the solicitor and barristers featured in the report said clients who had alleged domestic violence were sometimes required to attend a mediation session. Only one fifth of the respondents said they had never seen this happen.
This is a vivid and rather unsettling report which I think shines a spotlight onto what may be some genuine failings in an often overstretched family law system. It is peppered with the heartbreaking recollections of domestic violence survivors.
Earlier this week we reported on the government’s plans to legislate in favour of shared parenting. Here we see the dark side of contact and mediation between parents – when done in an indiscriminate, mechanical way, woman and children are put at real risk.