MPs have spoken out in favour of the government carrying out a full review of the family courts to stop them being used by violent men to prolong abuse against their partners and their children.
The House of Commons debated the issue on 15 September 2016 following the January 2016 Women’s Aid Report, “Nineteen Child Homicides”. The report highlighted 19 children who had been killed by perpetrators of domestic abuse. The report found that the killings had been made possible as a result of unsafe child contact arrangements, formal and informal.
MPs, including Labour MP for Hove Peter Kyle, said that the family court system was allowing violent men to re-victimise women and that an increasing number of men are representing themselves and re-traumatising their victims. Kyle added that, “The family courts are being used to perpetrate abuse against extremely vulnerable women…One of my constituents has been cross-examined by her former partner on three separate occasions, the man who beat her, broke her bones and battered her unconscious”.
Angela Smith, the Labour MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, raised the case of her constituent Claire Throssell whose children were killed by her estranged partner, Darren Sykes. Sykes murdered their two children at their home in 2014 during a contact visit. He enticed them up to the loft with a new train set, then set 16 fires in the house and barricaded the home. Sykes had been given contact with the children by the family court despite the authorities’ knowledge of his violence and the children’s expressed fear towards him. Smith said, “…the family courts needed to properly implement ‘practice guidance 12J’, which is suppose to force judges to put the safety of children and their residential parents before the access rights of a violent and abusive parent”.
MPs sent a clear message to the new justice secretary, Liz Truss, that as well as responding to the Women’s Aid report, they need to respond to the all-party parliamentary group report on domestic abuse, child contact and the family courts, which said that the courts needed to ensure there was safe child contact, not contact at any cost.
The former director of public prosecutions and Labour MP for Holborn and St Pancras, Keir Starmer said it was important to look at the changes made to the criminal justice system to better protect the victims of domestic violence. The criminal system has incorporated special measure for victims and witnesses and enables special independent abuse advocates so that nobody has to face being cross-examined by their abuser in court. Starmer said when he went along to the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence he was “…struck by the fact that what I was hearing would not be tolerated the criminal courts any more. Special measure in the criminal courts is the norm”.
Dr Phillip Lee, the parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice said in relation to Practice Direction 12J, “the most senior family judge, the president of the family division, has asked a High Court to review the practice direction in light of the recommendations made by Women’s Aid and the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence”.
It is hoped that Sir James Munby tackles this issue head on.