We expect every report of Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) to be treated seriously from the point of disclosure, every victim to be treated with dignity, and every investigation and every prosecution to be conducted thoroughly and professionally.Home Office, Ratification of Istanbul Convention Report, Oct 2020.
Well-intentioned governments have a plan to tackle domestic abuse. The Scottish Government understand that Violence Against Women and Girls is a fundamental violation of human rights and the country is steadfast in resigning domestic abuse to the history books. Scotland plans to embrace equality, tackle and prosecute perpetrators and use early intervention to prevent and eradicate the shameful plague on our citizens, economy, health services and criminal justice system. Scotland understands coercive control and the deep-rooted beliefs and values held by abusers. It is implementing swift and radical legislation to uphold the human rights of women and children subjected to harm. Legislation is proving to be effective, with an 84% conviction rate reported for the new Coercive Control offence, a number which is expected to rise. (National Statistics, Crime & Justice, 2019-2020).
Scotland’s vision is clear, but there is a significant obstacle blocking the path to the kind and safe country Scotland aspires to be. When women and children report and disclose mental and physical violence in the family courts, the court’s response is to blame, punish and silence them. The vulnerable get subjected to an often horrifying and lengthy ordeal. There is no dignity, only disparagement, for the family courts thoroughly scrutinise the victim’s behaviour, not the perpetrators. Raising violence in the family courts can be a frightening experience for women and children. The family courts are an institution that prioritises child contact over child safety, and they are often strict and authoritarian in their approach.
Psychological and violent abusers get absolved overnight when they enter the civil court process. Mother-blaming non-scientific theories are routinely used in family courts. They give the appearance of mutual conflict, conceal cruel behaviour and render controlling and dangerous parents unimpeachable. Horrific incidents get moved to a box labelled historic and perpetrators are considered good enough parents worthy of not just a second chance, but a third and fourth – for the pattern of cruel and harmful behaviour continues over the years of court-ordered co-parenting. The judiciary routinely turns a blind eye to the harm.
There are several access to justice barriers in the family courts for women and children who experience mental and physical violence. When the blame and burden of domestic abuse is shifted onto women and children they are sentenced to years of further suffering which does extraordinary short and long term damage. Raise claims of abusive behaviour and the ‘parental alienation’ card is played, shutting down efforts to report and disclose; mothers get labelled vengeful and hostile, and children get labelled influenced or manipulated. There is no fair and accessible complaints process – if complaints are raised, women and children get punished further and the ‘privilege’ card is played; the secrecy surrounding court reports and judgements only further emboldens those who abuse their power.
By failing to address domestic abuse appropriately, the family courts are impeding Governments’ efforts to tackle all forms of Violence Against Women and Girls and perpetuating the debilitating cycles of abuse. Governments committed to ratifying the Istanbul Convention must pay close attention to the practices in the family courts. While mandatory training in domestic abuse is essential, it does not address the root cause of the family court’s refusal to respect the human rights of women and children and protect them from harm. Individuals deep-rooted beliefs and values are at the heart of the cruelty, and they must get tackled swiftly and head-on.
The Spanish Government has recently taken firm action by outlawing the use of mother-blaming non-scientific theories that silence the child’s voice, such as parental alienation. GREVIO, the human rights body mandated to monitor the implementation of the Istanbul Convention, has urged the Italian authorities to ammend legislation to,
- explicitly recognise the need to take into account incidents of violence
- investigate any report of violence
- ensure that only those professionals who are attuned to the issue of violence against women can be appointed by courts to provide advice on issues of custody and visitation in situations of violence against women
- ban the use by court-appointed experts, social workers and courts of concepts related to “parental alienation”, as well as any other approach or principle, such as the “friendly parent provision”
Many judges and legal and mental health practitioners in the family court system stubbornly refuse to acknowledge and show remorse for the harm the family courts do to women and children. The family court’s approach directly clashes with Scotland’s plans to tackle domestic abuse, prevent harm and protect its citizens. Well-intentioned governments must now follow Spain and legislate to end the harm. They must outlaw the use of mother blaming theories in the family courts, and they must remove the presumption of contact that exists. They must bring transparency and openness to the family court system and root out professional misconduct once and for all.
Victims of controlling and violent perpetrators seek freedom and safety; they seek the opportunity to move forward with their lives and heal. Children deserve to grow up as free-thinking individuals in a safe environment. If the family courts refuse to set women and children free, then the Government must.