Child First: Safe child contact saves lives

Help us stop avoidable child deaths and make sure children are put first in the family courts.

June 2022 – New Women’s Aid report marks two years since the Harm Report’s publication

In June 2020, the Ministry of Justice published the final report of its expert panel on assessing risk of harm to children and parents in private family law children cases. The report concluded that the family courts do not effectively protect many child and adult victims of domestic abuse from further harm. It made a number of recommendations which, if implemented, would transform the family court response to domestic abuse.

Two years later, Women’s Aid has published a new report: Two years, too long. In the report we ask what progress has been made since the publication of the Harm Report, and what work remains to be done. Our report is informed by the experiences of survivors who have been in court since 2020, and the specialist services supporting them. 

More campaign news

On 29th April 2021, the Domestic Abuse Act reached royal assent and finally became law. The Act contains a number of new provisions that will help to make the family courts safer for survivors and their children. These include:

  • The first ever statutory definition of domestic abuse which recognises children as victims in their own right.
  • Victims of domestic abuse will be automatically eligible for special measures in the family courts. There will also be provisions in the civil courts for some survivors to access special measures.
  • Perpetrators or alleged perpetrators of abuse will be prohibited from directly cross-examining their victims in person in the family and civil courts, where there are convictions or evidence of domestic abuse. The courts will also have discretion to prevent cross-examination in other circumstances.
  • Clarity that the family courts should use barring orders (an order under section 91(14) of the Children Act) to prevent the family courts from being used to continue abuse.

These changes have been hard fought for throughout the Child First campaign, but we recognise that systemic change is still needed throughout family justice. As we reach the first anniversary of the Ministry of Justice expert harm panel’s report, we continue to push for implementation of the report’s recommendations, which highlighted the importance of redesigning the family justice system to respond safely to survivors and their children.

Over the last few years, the terms “parental alienation” and “alienating behaviour” have been used more and more – in the family courts, in children’s social work, on social media, and even in debates about the new domestic abuse bill. This blog discusses why “alienation” such a dangerous term when it comes to domestic abuse.

Women’s Aid, along with Rights of Women, Rape Crisis England and Wales, and Welsh Women’s Aid, intervened in four joined appeals relating to domestic abuse and the family courts. These appeals were from mothers who had experienced domestic abuse and sexual violence and were challenging unsafe contact decisions. The Court of Appeal judgement noted the importance of judges and magistrates having proper understanding of the nature of domestic abuse – in particular the impact of controlling and coercive behaviour on victims and children.

Ministry of Justice publishes its panel’s report on assessing risk of harm to children and parents in private law children cases

On Thursday 25th June 2020, the report of the panel appointed by the Ministry of Justice to review the family courts’ handling of cases involving domestic abuse and other forms of harm to children and parents was published. The findings of the panel mark major progress for our Child First campaign.

Women’s Aid was represented on the panel of experts guiding the review of evidence and has fought to ensure survivors voices are heard at every stage. The panel’s report concludes that family courts do not effectively protect many child and adult victims of domestic abuse from further harm. In fact, the courts’ pro-contact culture result in children and non-abusive parents being put at risk of often severe harm. The report shines a light on the sexism, racism and class prejudice that survivors face in the family courts.

The panel calls for fundamental reform of the child arrangements programme – calling for a redesign of the system to be safety-focused and trauma-aware, taking an investigative, problem-solving approach, working in a joined-up, connected and consistent manner with other areas of justice and agencies, and with adequate resources.

  • You can read the panel’s report, along with an accompanying literature review and the government’s implementation plan, here.
  • And you can read a blog from Lucy Hadley, our Campaigns and Policy Manager, about why this report is such a breakthrough for Child First.

If the government acts to implement these recommendations, the family court response to survivors of domestic abuse could be transformed forever. We look forward to working with the Ministry of Justice, the Family Division and HMCTS to take forward these recommendations and deliver a safe family court system for survivors and their children.

Women’s Aid partnered with Queen Mary University of London on research looking at the experiences of survivors of domestic abuse in the family courts through the lens of human rights. The research uncovers a glaring gender gap in the way human rights are used and understood in the family courts and highlights new evidence of gender discrimination within the institutional culture of the courts. Find out more here.

We are delighted that the government established a panel of experts to review how the family courts protect children and parents in cases of domestic abuse and other serious offences, which is a significant win for our campaign. Women’s Aid has been part of the panel, which published an update report in October. We look forward to the panel’s final report later this year.

In March 2020, the domestic abuse bill returned to parliament. We were pleased that the government listened to our calls for a wider ban on cross-examination to protect all survivors who face this traumatising practice in the court system. But there remains a long way to go before the family courts will be truly safe for women and children. The law must make survivors automatically eligible for special protection measures in the family and civil courts, not only the criminal courts. Tackling the culture of ‘contact at all costs’ in the family courts remains a fundamental priority in order to keep survivors and their children safe after separation

We are pleased to have provided support to Louise Haigh MP on a Bill that would: “Remove the parental rights of fathers of children conceived through rape; to make provision for an inquiry into the handling by family courts of domestic abuse and violence against women and girls in child arrangement cases; and for connected purposes.” The Bill has cross-party support, and backs a key call of our campaign for a statutory inquiry into the family court response to domestic abuse. Louise’s speech introducing the Bill can be watched here.

We are delighted that the government has listened and acted by introducing a ban on abusers cross-examining victims in the family courts in the new draft domestic abuse bill. You can see the draft bill here, and keep up to date on the bill here.

The government and the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, have issued new guidance for judges and magistrates for child contact cases where there are allegations of domestic abuse. Find out more here.

The campaign has secured a promise from the government to create a new law to ban perpetrators of domestic abuse from being able to cross-examine their victims in the family court.

This new law is part of the Prison and Courts Bill which was originally stopped due to the snap General Election.

Women’s Aid marked the first anniversary of the launch of the Child First campaign and report Nineteen Child Homicides by handing the Child First petition into Number 10 Downing Street. It has been signed by over 42,000 people.

On the same day we released our report Child First: A Call to Action One Year On, which shows what we have achieved and what we still have to do to make children safe.

On 20th January, the President of the Family Division announced Mr Justice Cobb’s review of Practice Direction 12J: Child Arrangement and Contact Orders: Domestic Violence and Harm. The Practice Direction outlines what judges and magistrates must do when overseeing child contact cases where domestic abuse is alleged or has taken place.  The review makes various suggestions to improve the practice direction including a clear definition of ‘harm’, addressing the ‘contact at all costs’ culture of the family courts and always putting children’s interest and safety first.

On the 4th January the government announced an emergency review to find the quickest way to ban abusive ex-partners from cross-examining their victims in the family courts.

A debate in the House of Commons Chamber took place on 15 September 2016. Claire Throssell’s MP, Angela Smith, told the stories of Claire’s two sons, Jack, 12 and Paul, 9, who were both killed by their father, a known perpetrator of domestic abuse, in Parliament for the very first time. MPs from all political parties made moving and powerful speeches about the need for change. Read or watch the debate.

The Ministry of Justice has also asked Women’s Aid to review the training provided to family court staff on domestic abuse, and the guidance (Practice Direction 12J) issued to the judges and magistrates when there is an allegation of domestic abuse in child contact cases.

What is the Child First campaign about?

Since our campaign began in 2016 we have been calling on the government, all family courts professionals, and involved agencies to make the family court process safer for women and children survivors of domestic abuse. We wanted an end to avoidable child deaths as a result of unsafe child contact with dangerous perpetrators of domestic violence, and to ensure that children are always put at the heart of contact decisions made by the family courts. Five years on, the campaign has seen critical changes. But survivors of domestic abuse still tell us that they have been re-victimised and traumatised by their abusers, even after separation, through the family court process. We won’t stop fighting for the urgent culture change needed in the family courts.

ChildFirst campaign inforgraphic

Research & key statistics

View and share our infographics that support the campaign.

Survivor Claire Throssell with her two sons

Read Claire’s story

Survivor Claire Throssell’s two sons were both killed by their father, a known perpetrator of domestic abuse.

mother and child

Children & the law

The Rights of Women website has information on children and the law and the family court process.

Further information & support

If you have any concerns about your safety, or that of anyone you know, please contact the police on 999 in an emergency or contact us for information and support.

Learn more about our campaigning work

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