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BLOG: MPs call for family court enquiry, with focus on domestic violence victims

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Justice Secretary David Gauke has been asked by 123 MPs to undertake an independent enquiry into the family courts and how they operate.

A particular focus will be on how it treats victims of domestic violence, especially in children cases. One of the concerns they raise is whether contact has been sanctioned by the courts in unsafe situations which has resulted in child deaths.

Those MPs might be assisted by spending some time in our family courts to see the process for themselves.

Many, many cases within the family justice system involve separating parents who simply cannot agree what is in their children’s best interests or, rather, have differing views as to how those best interests can be met.

However it is true that an increasing number of cases do require the court to evaluate the potential risk posed to the child by their parent, especially in cases when domestic violence is alleged. In all children cases the court must have the welfare of the child (and not the adults) as its paramount consideration.

Most people would agree that for a child to grow up as a well rounded individual having a good relationship with both mum and dad will assist that and certainly the court is likely to be attracted to that outcome but only if it can happen safely.

In cases involving domestic violence there are additional factors that the court have to take into account in evaluating whether contact is in the best interests of a child.

If domestic abuse is alleged but is disputed by the other parent, the court will have to establish whether those allegations can be proved. This is very often achieved by a hearing known as a ‘finding of fact’ hearing. The court will try and secure the best evidence that is available, including police logs and medical records.

If the court makes findings that domestic abuse has occurred then it should only make an order for contact if it is satisfied that the physical and emotional safety of the child and the parent with whom the child is living can, as far as possible, be secured before during and after contact, and that the parent with whom the child is living will not be subjected to further domestic abuse by the other parent.

Evaluating risk is not always an easy task for the judge.

This is illustrated by the fact that it is being suggested by reference to recent Serious Case Reviews that at least four children have been killed by a parent.

Ensuring that any contact ordered is safe must be what the family courts deliver and any debate to achieve that is to be welcomed.

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