Family court process in child arrangement cases in line for major overhaul following ‘Harm Panel’ report

Research has found ‘deep-seated and systemic problems’ with the way that family courts in England and Wales respond to allegations of domestic abuse in child arrangement proceedings.

A panel of experts was appointed by the Ministry of Justice – including Leicester Law School’s Professor Mandy Burton – to examine the process and outcomes in child arrangement cases where there are allegations of domestic abuse.

Following a public call for evidence, the panel analysed 1,115 submissions from mothers, fathers and professionals who had experience of family court proceedings. They also conducted roundtable discussions and focus groups in both England and Wales.

The findings are published in a Ministry of Justice report co-authored by Professor Rosemary Hunter of the University of Kent, Professor Burton, and Professor Liz Trinder from the University of Exeter.

Professor Burton, a leading expert on socio-legal studies, criminal justice and family law, said: “The report reinforces what children and mothers have been saying for years; that the court process is re-traumatising and that contact arrangements ordered by the courts in domestic abuse cases often leave them feeling unsafe.

“We heard that children feel that their views are not taken into account, especially when they say that they do not want to see a parent who has abused them or their mother.”

The panel identified four systemic barriers to safe process and outcomes; resource constraints, the pro-contact culture and the minimisation of abuse, silo working and adversarialism. The panel concluded that, both individually and in combination, these barriers result in ongoing harm from the family court process and court orders. 

The panel made comprehensive recommendations for a major overhaul of the familycourt process in child arrangement cases, including a shift from an adversarial approach, to a more safety-focused and trauma-aware approach.

Presenting the report to Parliament in 2020, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Alex Chalk MP, said the report ‘lays bare many hard truths about long-standing failings in the family justice system’. The Government has also committed itself to fundamental reforms in this area. 

Now, Professor Burton will present the findings at the Leicester Family Justice Day conference on Friday 29 October.

The conference is led by Leicester Family Law Training Association and will be hosted by Her Honour Judge George, Designated Family Judge of Leicester and Leicestershire.

In addition to the Harm Panel report, further speakers will include the Honourable Mrs Justice Lieven, Family Division Liaison Judge for the Midland Circuit, while workshops will seek to cover the latest developments and best practice in family law.

The Harm Panel’s full report, ‘Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases’ is available at alongside the Government’s response and implementation plan.