Baroness Helic is a Conservative Life peer.
For many victims of domestic abuse, the family courts simply aren’t working. Worse than that: they are being undermined and exploited by abusers, as a continuing means of control over their ex-partners. As the Domestic Abuse Bill returns to the House of Commons on Thursday 15, MPs have a chance to fix that – if they approve crucial amendments from the House of Lords.
Three examples give a sense of the problem. A judge said that a survivor “didn’t look like a victim” because she wore make-up to court. A survivor of domestic violence was ordered to respond to two emails a week from her abuser, within 48 hours for each – giving him continued access to and control over her life. One parent was taken to court 27 times in the space of five years by her abuser. Each example shows a lack of understanding and recognition of domestic abuse and coercive control – and shows how the courts can be used to continue it.
There are many cases like this – too many. The family courts’ approach to domestic abuse remains much the same as twenty years ago, and the system is stacked against survivors. The Ministry of Justice’s Harm Panel Review concluded that a “major overhaul” is needed. And it stressed the importance of detailed and specific training on domestic abuse for all participants in the family law system, reviewed by experts, and including a “cultural change programme to introduce and embed reforms”.
That is why I introduced an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill in the House of Lords, which makes training on domestic abuse mandatory for judges hearing cases involving abuse. Domestic abuse affects all aspects of a family court case. It shapes how participants appear in court, the evidence they give and how they give it. It is a critical factor in determining the interests at stake and how safe child contact is arranged. If the courts are to do their job, then judges need to understand domestic abuse and coercive control.
Without a good knowledge and understanding of domestic abuse and the insidious ways it works, the other – very welcome – measures in the Domestic Abuse Bill will not be enough to protect victims, as the Ministry of Justice’s own review recognised. New mechanisms are no help if abuse continues to be overlooked, misunderstood and dismissed. That is why training is necessary. It has to underpin all the measures in the Bill – and all our efforts to tackle domestic abuse
The Government says that it will pursue more training without primary legislation. But as the Harm Panel Review identified, current training is not working. Promising more of it will not achieve the reform which is needed. If Parliament does not kick start that reform, victims will continue to be failed.
Ministers have also said that Parliament should not get involved in the specifics of judicial training. That’s why my amendment ensures that it is still the Judicial College which is ultimately responsible for shaping and delivering the training – but it creates a much more robust framework within which they can do that. It works through judicial systems – but makes sure those systems work.
Putting a requirement for training in law means that we can give shape, meaning and coherence to commitments to improved training for judges. We can ensure scrutiny – the best way to guarantee rigour and effectiveness. And we can guarantee that this is a commitment which gets the resources it needs, and that outlasts individual ministers or funding cycles.
By specifying some of the ground that training must cover, we can ensure that it gives judges and magistrates a thorough grounding in all the different ways domestic abuse can influence a court case, all the ways it should be taken into account when considering a child’s welfare.
By involving the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, as well as the Judicial College, the President of the Family Court and the Head of the Magistrates’ Association, we can ensure high quality training, informed by up-to-date evidence-based knowledge, which equips our judges and magistrates with the skills they need to wrestle with these difficult cases, and provide protection and justice to survivors of abuse.
Family cases are some of the most complex and emotionally challenging anywhere in our courts. In the great majority, judges act with wisdom and compassion. Arguing for more training should not be seen as an attack on them.
Greater understanding of domestic abuse among the judiciary should even save time and resources in the courts, with vexatious litigation spotted sooner, and judges better able to prevent abusers from bringing repeated cases as a means of controlling their victims.
My amendment is backed by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, the National and London Victims’ Commissioners, and lawyers and experts from the family court system and the domestic abuse sector. It is backed by the many survivors who tell me how important training is.
One survivor who contacted me recently described how she was not seen as a victim of domestic abuse, because there were no broken bones, no scars, and because was perceived as a “strong and capable woman”. But we know domestic abuse takes many more forms than just the most visible manifestations of violence. It is no good changing our legislation to reflect that if we do not change practice in the courts as well. That requires training – and that training needs to be embedded in law.
We are almost there. My amendment passed in the House of Lords with support from peers of all parties, but it is now returning to the House of Commons. MPs should listen to the stories which I’m sure they hear from survivors. They should listen to experts from the domestic abuse sector. And I hope they will seize the moment to create a court system which works for victims and survivors, not for their abusers.