On 20 April 2016, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) held a briefing launch on the findings of the Hearing on Domestic Abuse, Child Contact and the Family Courts. The briefing details the key findings of the Hearing and also makes seven key recommendations for change, to make the family court and child contact process safer and fairer for women and children survivors of domestic abuse:
1. The Ministry of Justice, and the President of the Family Division, must clarify that there must not be an assumption of shared parenting in child contact cases where domestic abuse is a feature, and child contact should be decided based on an informed judgement of what’s in the best interests of child.
2. The Government must put an immediate end to survivors of domestic abuse being cross-examined by, or having to cross-examine, their abusers in the family court.
3. The Ministry of Justice must urgently set up an independent, national oversight group overseeing and advising upon the implementation of Practice Direction12J – Child Arrangements and Contact Order: Domestic Violence and Harm.
4. The Ministry of Justice and President of Family Division must ensure that special measures, such as dedicated safe waiting rooms for vulnerable witnesses and separate entrance and exit times, are available throughout family court proceedings and any subsequent child contact, to ensure the safety and wellbeing of both vulnerable women and children.
5. The Ministry of Justice, President of the Family Division and Cafcass must ensure Judges and court staff in the family court, Cafcass officers and other frontline staff in other related agencies receive specialist face-to-face training on all aspects of domestic violence – particularly coercive and controlling behaviour, the frequency and nature of post-separation abuse, and the impact of domestic abuse on children, on parenting and on the mother-child relationship.
6. The Ministry of Justice, President of the Family Division and Cafcass must ensure expert safety and risk assessments in child contact cases are carried out where there is an abusive parent involved; they must be conducted by a dedicated domestic abuse practitioner who works for an agency accredited to nationally recognised standards for responding to domestic abuse.
7. The President of the Family Division must ensure family court judges never order child contact in supported contact centres where a risk assessment has found that the abusive parent still poses a risk to the child or non-abusive parent.
At the event there were powerful speeches from the Chair of the APPG Jess Phillips MP, the Vice-Chair of the APPG Maria Miller MP, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid Polly Neate, and Women’s Aid Survivors Participation Panel member Carrol. Jess Phillips and Maria Miller committed to writing to Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Justice, to ask that the seven recommendations in the report are seriously considered.