Although the family courts are taking steps to improve their awareness of domestic abuse, the killing of children on contact visits has shown that risk assessment is not always perfect. Gordon Carson reports
The family courts should abandon any thought that men who are violent to their partners can still be good fathers, one of Britain’s most senior judges said last month (Judge urges safety first on violent fathers, 30 March).
But Lord Justice Wall’s recommendation in a report came too late for at least three children murdered in the past 10 years, for whom the courts granted unsupervised contact to violent fathers against professional advice.
These cases were first highlighted in a report last year from Women’s Aid that identified 29 children killed by their fathers from 1994 to 2004 after a relationship breakdown.
Lord Justice Wall said eight of the deaths “could not have been reasonably foreseen or prevented by the courts”, while 18 were subject to no court proceedings. However, he found problems in three cases that involved consent orders for contact, where separating parents come to court with an agreement to be ratified by the judge.
He also referred to “frequent complaints” from mothers that, because of the courts’ “perceived” bias towards contact, lawyers pressurise them into consent orders they do not believe are safe for their children.
Lord Justice Wall recommended that no judge should sit for the first time in private law proceedings without multi-disciplinary instruction on domestic violence.
Malcolm Richardson, a magistrate member of government advisory body the Family Justice Council, says magistrates have had training on the issue available for two years.
“To the best of my knowledge it has not been specified as an essential prerequisite [of sitting as a magistrate] but it is available and I would expect most will have taken it up,” he says.
“In the judiciary, as in the community, there is more awareness of and sensitivity towards domestic violence. Like you would see in the community as a whole, there will be a range of opinions [in the judiciary] as to the seriousness of it at first representation.”
Richardson says all magistrates sitting in family proceedings will be aware of the widening of the definition of harm, through the Adoption and Children Act 2002, to include cases where children have seen others being harmed as well as those where they have been harmed themselves.
A spokesperson for the Judicial Studies Board, which trains judges in England and Wales and oversees the training of magistrates, says training on domestic abuse is a key component of its induction and continuation courses for private family law.
Judges can only do so much, though. They also rely on information gathered by other professionals. But this was found to be lacking in a report last October from HM Inspectorate of Court Administration. It said most Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service practitioners did not “sufficiently understand” the nature of domestic abuse and that routine ways of working “do not assess risk”.
In response, Cafcass said its domestic violence policy launched last October including standards on risk assessments and training requirements would help tackle the problems.
Richardson says this situation could improve through “gateway” forms introduced in January 2005. These are used in private law applications and ask whether domestic abuse is a factor at the start of the case.
An amendment to the Children and Adoption Bill now going through parliament could also improve child safety by introducing a mandatory risk assessment checklist for all cases involving abuse allegations.
Women’s Aid policy officer Deborah McIlveen says this might be too little. The charity, and others, including Barnardo’s and Refuge, backed an amendment that would have re- quired judges to have due regard to risk assessments when making contact decisions, but the standing committee on the bill rejected it.
She also says the courts and Cafcass practitioners must listen more to children’s voices, but the drive for early resolution makes this harder to achieve. “Children don’t talk about it immediately,” she says. “They might not say anything to a Cafcass officer for ages.”
Richardson has similar concerns. “There’s a conflict between the idea of early resolution by agreement versus safety,” he says.