Family courts should give greater weight to coercive behaviour when considering disputes between parents, court of appeal judges have advised.
The advice was part of a judgment by a panel of three senior judges on four linked appeals brought by mothers over child contact, with each case involving allegations of coercive control and partner rape.
Family courts should “prioritise consideration of whether a pattern of coercive and/or controlling behaviour is established over and above the determination of any specific factual allegations”, the judges ruled.
The approach of regarding coercive or controlling incidents between adults when they were in a close relationship as being “in the past”, and therefore of little relevance when assessing risk of harm in future, should be considered “old-fashioned and no longer acceptable”, the panel stated.
The judgment noted abuse does not always end with a relationship and that, even with an injunction in place, subtle forms of abuse can persist.
“We welcome the conclusion family judges must do more to investigate patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour and examine what harm this has upon a child,” Lucy Hadley of Women’s Aid Federation of England was quoted as saying by the Guardian newspaper.
“But we are severely disappointed the court of appeal did not call for an end to the ‘contact at all costs’ approach, which is putting women and children experiencing domestic abuse in danger. We fear this judgment has not recognised the urgent need for wholesale reform to make the family courts safe for survivors.”
She also commented: “We hear daily from survivors who tell us abusers use the family courts and child contact arrangements as weapons to continue control after they’ve escaped.”