New research on court applications involving children
The charity Women’s Aid and the court advisory service CAFCASS have recently published the findings of a joint research project which they have collaborated on. They looked at 216 cases where applications were made to the family court about where a child should live or spend time with each parent. These applications are for a Child Arrangements Order. Their research shows that 62% of such applications feature allegations of domestic abuse. The study was to look at the types of allegations present in family law proceedings, including safeguarding concerns other than domestic abuse, and what happened within the proceedings. The study did not seek to make findings on the allegations made in the individual cases.
The study highlighted the significant impact on children who experience domestic abuse, with those in the sample exhibiting a range of responses to their experiences of domestic abuse and other harmful parental behaviours. The study also showed the complexity of cases in which allegations of domestic abuse occur. In the sample of cases looked at by the team 89% of those cases with domestic abuse allegations also involved other safeguarding concerns such as substance abuse or mental health problems.
Children were described in the case files as being “confused and upset”, of a “low mood”, and being “very uncomfortable” at school when other children are loud. In some cases featuring multiple risks the local authority was working with the children, who had been identified as ‘children in need’ or were on a child protection plan under the category of emotional harm. Children who had experienced domestic abuse often had strong views about contact with the abusive parent. Fathers were three times more likely to be the subject of abuse allegations than mothers. The study also showed that younger children received support at school to improve their attendance and help with socialisation, and older children received more specialist support, such as counselling.
The data has helped CAFCASS and Women’s Aid build a picture of what typically happens in court cases where domestic abuse features:
- Family Court Advisers recommended either indirect or no contact in over a quarter of cases where domestic abuse is alleged.
- Unsupervised contact was ordered at the first hearing in 23% of cases involving such allegations; 44% of cases at the same point had some sort of contact ordered.
- Where the order at the final hearing was known, it was less common for unsupervised contact to be ordered in cases featuring allegations of domestic abuse (39%) than cases without (48%).
- Where a domestic abuse allegation was made, supervised or supported contact was more likely to be ordered at the first and final hearing in cases, as was indirect or no contact.
- In the majority of cases featuring domestic abuse allegations where unsupervised contact was ordered, such contact had been taking place prior to the application to court.
This research highlights the complexity for the courts faced with making a safe decision for children against a backdrop of disputed allegations and multiple safeguarding concerns. The Court will always put the needs of the child first and will only make an order if it feels it is in the best interests of the child to do so.
Amanda Erskine is a solicitor in the Family department at Barker Gotelee Solicitors.