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SafeLives release two reports, showing a lack of understanding, trauma awareness and support for victims of domestic abuse in the family court.

30th March 2022

Experiences in family court: SafeLives find family lawyers’ understanding of domestic abuse ‘hit and miss’, leaving many survivors feeling silenced, misjudged and retraumatised. 

Today, two years on from the Government’s ‘Family Harms Panel’, reports released by the domestic abuse charity SafeLives show a lack of understanding, trauma awareness and support for victims of domestic abuse in the family court. The reports also identify key gaps in lawyers’ understanding, including coercive control and other non-physical forms of abuse. 

Suzanne Jacob, SafeLives CEO, launches two new reports today at an event at the Old Bailey, hosted by Alderman and Sheriff, Alison Gowman, and supported by City Bridge Trust. The reports explore survivors’ experiences with family lawyers and family lawyers’ understanding of domestic abuse and call for a trauma-informed approach to family justice. Other speakers include Domestic Abuse Commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, Her Honour Judge Anuja Dhir QC, and Shana, a SafeLives Pioneer Trustee. 

In the first of two reports, “Don’t complain” Domestic abuse survivors’ experiences of family lawyers, survivors and domestic abuse practitioners detail a lack of understanding, trauma awareness and support for victims in family court.

Survivors told SafeLives they felt judged, often misunderstood, and ignored during the court process. A survivor who felt silenced by her lawyer told us she was advised not to complain when she noted that reports were incorrect or were missing vital information.

Always the advice is: ‘Well, don’t complain. You’ll be seen to be doing this…it’ll go against you’ 

- Domestic abuse survivor 

In the second report, “Hit and miss” Family lawyers’ understanding of domestic abuse, legal professionals and domestic abuse practitioners identified key gaps in lawyers’ understanding, including coercive control and non-physical forms of abuse, the impact of domestic abuse on children, and the dynamics of abusive relationships. These can prevent them from being able to identify and appropriately respond to survivors of domestic abuse.

Some do, some don’t [understand] – but the majority don’t.

- Domestic abuse practitioner

Professionals from the legal sector also told us that despite some great examples of excellent practice, few lawyers tend to show they understand what it might feel like for survivors to go through the family justice system which can “replicate the power and control dynamics” of domestic abuse. 

 

Suzanne Jacob OBE, CEO of SafeLives said:  “The experiences shared in these reports reinforce our determination to restore survivors’ faith in the family justice system. This is a system that is meant to provide safety and security for children and adults, including those who have been subjected to abuse.  

“We have to listen to and believe survivors of domestic abuse. 

“Family justice professionals across the board need to develop a far better understanding of the complexities of domestic abuse and the impact of trauma, sensitively and competently considering people’s intersecting characteristics and experiences including race and language skills, so every adult and child survivor receives the support and representation they deserve.” 

The Domestic Abuse Commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, said: “Far too often I hear from domestic abuse survivors about their experiences in the family courts. Many victims and their children feel let down and retraumatised through the process which is why improving the family courts response to domestic abuse is one of my top priorities.

“As these reports by SafeLives highlight, the problems in the family courts are well-known and were backed up in the Government’s Harm Panel report published in in 2020.

“We must see the Harm Panel’s recommendations implemented now so we can see a better understanding of domestic abuse in the family courts with the voice of survivor and their children at the heart of proceedings.”

Sheriff of the City of London Alison Gowman said: “All too often, the trauma domestic abuse survivors have lived through is exacerbated by the intimidating experience of going through the court system.

“We’re delighted to host professionals from the family and criminal justice systems for the launch of this report.

“It contains some really important learning on how the legal profession as a whole can work to improve its understanding of abuse and to greatly enhance the support, empathy and understanding offered to survivors.”

 

With support from the Legal Education Foundation, SafeLives is developing and delivering a cultural-change training programme working with survivors, domestic abuse services and family legal professionals to transform the family justice system’s response to domestic abuse. 

Our goal is to see a reformed and informed family justice system, where survivors of domestic abuse have faith in the system, where the safety of adult and child survivors of abuse is paramount, and where better, safer outcomes are achieved. Our work with family legal professionals, survivors and domestic abuse services to develop this cultural-change training programme for family lawyers is one step on the road to achieving that. 

 

Notes to editors:

Contact

For media enquiries, please contact Connie Simpson on 07394 560 467 or connie.simpson@safelives.org.uk

About SafeLives: 

We are SafeLives, the UK-wide charity dedicated to ending domestic abuse, for everyone and for good.    

We work with organisations across the UK to transform the response to domestic abuse. We want what you would want for your best friend. We listen to survivors, putting their voices at the heart of our thinking. We look at the whole picture for each individual and family to get the right help at the right time to make families everywhere safe and well. And we challenge perpetrators to change, asking ‘why doesn’t he stop?’ rather than ‘why doesn’t she leave?’ This applies whatever the gender of the victim or perpetrator and whatever the nature of their relationship.  

Background to reports: 

At SafeLives we hear repeatedly from survivors of domestic abuse, who have spent years in the family courts, that the system is failing them.

In 2020, the Ministry of Justice Family Harms Panel recommended a wide range of training “for all participants in the family justice system, including: a cultural change programme to introduce and embed reforms to private law children’s proceedings and help to ensure consistent implementation.” 

Our own response to the call for evidence highlighted the need for specialist training across the whole family justice system. 

In response, we were delighted to be supported by the Legal Education Foundation to develop and deliver a cultural-change training programme to create systemic transformation within the family justice system and strengthen practitioner capacity to respond well to domestic abuse. More information on the training programme can be found here.  

As part of the development of this project, we have produced two reports, exploring the voices of survivors and of family legal professionals.    

A huge thank you to all the survivors, domestic abuse practitioners and family lawyers who shared their experiences of the family court with us. We have used these findings to shape the practitioner training programme and make recommendations for legal practitioners and family law organisations.