‘Pioneering approach’ to better support domestic abuse victims piloted

A pilot scheme is being launched to improve information sharing between the police, local authorities and the courts in domestic abuse cases.

Mar 9, 2022
By Paul Jacques
Picture: University of Bristol

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) says the “pioneering approach” will better support victims of domestic abuse and help ensure they are not further traumatised by the court process.

The scheme is being piloted at family courts in North Wales and Dorset as part of the Government’s drive to tackle domestic violence and improve victim support.

The emphasis will be on “investigating and addressing” allegations of abuse before a case gets to court. This could include local domestic abuse professionals sharing risk assessments with the court to spare victims and other parties the trauma of having to unnecessarily repeat their experiences.

The pilots work by allowing judges to review gathered information and request more documentation before a case gets to court. It avoids the circumstances of the case being debated in the courtroom, which can often exacerbate conflict between parents.

“The pilot will also encourage proceedings to be less adversarial so that more emphasis can be put into investigating and addressing allegations of domestic abuse and other harmful behaviours – rather than allowing confrontation in the courtroom to take place,” said the MoJ.

Between three months and a year after a ruling is made, in most cases the courts and the agencies involved will carry out a review to ensure decisions made are working well. This includes assessing whether court orders are being followed and whether additional support is needed.

“Crucially, it will also boost the voice of children at every stage of the process, ensuring they are listened to and their views are taken into account when decisions are made about their futures,” said the MoJ. “It will see children given more opportunity to explain how they feel and, following a court order, to say whether it is working for them.”

Justice Minister Lord Wolfson QC said: “These pilots will help ensure victims of domestic abuse aren’t further traumatised by the court process and that better decisions are made about their and their children’s lives.

“This, alongside our landmark Domestic Abuse Act, will ensure that victims are loudly heard and fully supported.”

The pilot follows a review of family courts, which found that an adversarial process often worsened conflict between parents and could have a damaging impact on victims and their children.

Tuesday’s (March 8) cement forms part of the Government’s sweeping reforms to transform the way family courts operate, contained in the Domestic Abuse Act. These include a ban on perpetrators cross-examining their victims as well as measures to prevent them from repeatedly bringing their ex-partners back to court – which can be used as a form of continuing domestic abuse.

Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales Nicole Jacobs said: “Every day I hear from domestic abuse survivors about their experiences in the family courts. Many victims and their children feel re-traumatised by the process which is why seeing improvements in the family courts is one of my top priorities as Commissioner

“I am delighted to see the Harm Panel’s recommendation to test a more investigative approach to domestic abuse cases now being piloted.

“Crucial to the success of these pilots will be ensuring that domestic abuse – particularly coercive control and the impact it has on adult and child victims – is fully understood and the risk it poses to survivors and children is taken into account throughout the proceedings.

Rhianon Argent, senior practitioner at the Bournemouth Women’s Refuge and BCP Outreach Team, said the pilot project will provide “essential support for domestic abuse survivors going through the family court”.

“This project has enabled us to recently recruit a specialist support worker, as part of our domestic abuse team, who will be dedicated to the family court,” she added.

“They will focus on the safety of victims at risk of harm from partners, ex-partners or family members providing support before, during and after the court process.

“In addition they will provide training and support for court personnel in understanding domestic abuse and coercive control.

“This is a much-needed new initiative, so that we can raise awareness of the trauma caused by domestic abuse and help to achieve best evidence at court with victims and survivors in Bournemouth and the surrounding areas.”

Rhian Lewis, head of operations and deputy chief executive officer at the Domestic Abuse Safety Unit North Wales, said many families have felt let down by the family courts system with perpetrators able to “continue to control and abuse them through this process”.

She added: “The pilot is a real opportunity to change the way that we support families that experience domestic abuse by recognising the risk, addressing safeguarding issues, reducing re-traumatisation and putting children and their non-abusive parent at the heart of the process. This system will improve their quality of life and put a stop to perpetrators being able to use the family courts as a means of exercising their control.”

The investigative pilot will be tested initially in Bournemouth and Weymouth in Dorset, and Caernarfon, Mold, Prestatyn and Wrexham in North Wales for up to two years before a full evaluation.

The pilot was designed in consultation with a wide range of family justice experts, including judges, charities and academics and comprises three stages. Agencies, including the police, will first gather information and assess whether there are any concerns for a child or person involved in the case about substance misuse, domestic abuse, or other welfare issues. There will then be a hearing to decide what interventions or decisions are required, for example whether it could be suitable for mediation out of court. It would also look at whether programmes such as Separated Parent programmes on how to put children first when a relationship breaks down are needed before an order is made. The new process aims to take the confrontational elements out of the family court system, with a focus more on investigating and solving problems to reduce potential harm to those involved.

The pilot will also, when appropriate and safe, help direct families towards accessing out of court options such as mediation. This could see them avoid the family courts altogether, resolving disputes without the stress of often lengthy and costly courtroom battles.

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