A week in family law: witchcraft, media and the election

Family Law|November 22nd 2019

Child abuse linked to witchcraft

Yes, you read that heading correctly, and no, we have not been teleported back in time to the seventeenth century.

The Local Government Association (‘LGA’) has revealed that the number of children in England identified by councils as having been abused for reasons associated with witchcraft has risen by a third in the past three years. Abuse of children based on faith or belief – which includes witchcraft, spirit possession and black magic – increased from 1,460 to 1,950 cases between 2016/17 and 2018/19, a rise of 34 per cent, with councils dealing with the equivalent of 38 such cases a week.

The new figures also show that the number of children identified by councils through a social work assessment as either having or being at risk of Female Genital Mutilation (‘FGM’) has reached a record high – with 1,000 such cases in 2018/19, up 6 per cent on the 940 cases in the previous year.

Unsurprisingly, the National FGM Centre, a joint initiative between the LGA and Barnardo’s, says both sets of figures are hugely worrying, and of significant national concern. They also say that they probably don’t reflect the true prevalence of this “hidden” crime.

The LGA said the next government needs to ensure councils have the funding needed to continue to take effective action to keep children safe from harm and abuse.

Leethen Bartholomew, Head of the National FGM Centre, said:

“It is alarming and unacceptable that the number of children affected by child abuse linked to faith and belief and FGM have risen dramatically. While it is positive that cases are being referred and affected children are receiving the care and protection they need, a lot more needs to be done to put an end to these harmful practices. We want to help end new cases of FGM in England by 2030 and to safeguard children from other harmful practices like child abuse linked to faith or belief. In order to achieve this, we need more partnership working, resources to tackle the issue, mandatory training for professionals and more awareness raised among communities.”

Responding to media criticism

In a speech to the Personal Support Unit conference on Domestic Abuse this week the President of the Family Division Sir Andrew McFarlane said that it was unsatisfactory that many perceived failures by the family justice system mentioned in the media could not be investigated, as it was impossible to identify the case concerned, and therefore to call for the court file to see what had happened in the particular case.

He said that this situation cried out for a

‘thorough independent research project’.

The researchers would be allowed access to the court file, and presumably then prepare some sort of report, identifying any mistakes made, or faults in the system. Steps would then be taken to rectify the matter.

All sounds wonderful, but I can see at least two obvious problems. Firstly, where would the resources come from to investigate all the many criticisms of the system that regularly appear in the media (even if just to decide that the criticism was without merit)? Secondly, how would access to the court file be dealt with? Would the parties have any say in this? And how do you ensure that private details are not disclosed to those who should not see them?

Election manifestos

And finally, I hate to mention the E-word, but the election manifestos of the main parties are being published, and so far it is good news for no-fault divorce. Both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party have pledged to introduce no-fault divorce if they come to power.

The Liberal Democrats have also pledged to introduce what they call ‘limited legal rights’ to cohabiting couples, for example to give them greater protection in the event of separation or a partner’s death. Both parties also appear to be in favour of re-introducing the proposed domestic abuse reforms, and also of restoring at least some measure of legal aid. Please note that there are other parties to vote for, but at the time of writing this I have not seen their manifestos.

Have a good weekend.

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If you would like any advice on divorce or other family law issues please do contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our specialist divorce lawyers here. 

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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