Pioneering approach in family courts to support domestic abuse victims better

The UK Government has begun a pilot pioneering an approach in family courts to support victims of domestic abuse, informed by Leicester research.

The pilots, which will run in Dorset and North Wales, are part of the Government’s plans to tackle domestic abuse, following on from the Harm Panel report published by the Ministry of Justice in 2020

Professor Mandy Burton, of Leicester Law School, was part of the expert Harm Panel and one of the co-authors of the report which examined how allegations of domestic abuse are dealt with in child arrangement proceedings in England and Wales.

The Panel found four barriers to safer processes and outcomes; a culture of minimisation of abuse, resource constraints, adversarialism and silo working.

The ‘pathfinder’ courts in Dorset and North Wales are designed to overcome some of the barriers identified by the Harm Panel, which recommended a more investigative, safety focused and trauma aware approach.

Speaking in response to the launch of the pilots, Professor Burton said: “It is great to see these pilots launched. A fresh approach to how allegations of domestic abuse are dealt with child arrangement proceedings is urgently needed. The Harm Panel shone a spotlight on a problem which has existed in the family courts for many years; the adversarial approach does not work well to protect victims of domestic abuse or their children.”

The case for reforming the family courts built following the case of Re H-N, heard by the Court of Appeal in 2021. Professor Burton has written about the case, which she argues exemplifies what can go wrong where there are allegations of domestic abuse in child arrangement cases. 

Professor Burton continued: “I am optimistic that there is now a strong momentum for meaningful reform. The Domestic Abuse Commissioner is regularly contacted by victims about their experiences in the family courts, and I know that it is a priority work for her going forward to ensure that there are improvements in this area. I was pleased to be commissioned, with Professor Rosemary Hunter (Kent), to design the pilot of the family court monitoring mechanism to ensure that there is a robust mechanism for gathering data and disseminating best practice.”

Nicole Jacobs, Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales, responded to the launch of the pilot, 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.”