Domestic Abuse and the Family Courts: Recent Developments

This House of Lords Library Briefing provides information on domestic abuse and the family courts, including the draft domestic abuse bill.

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The current non-statutory definition of domestic abuse is: any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality.

In the year ending March 2018, 6.1 percent of adults aged 16 to 59 years were victims of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse has numerous negative effects on victims and their children, as well as on the economy.

Domestic abuse is addressed through criminal prosecutions and civil injunctions. It often also surfaces in family law cases, such as divorce or child care arrangements. Family court proceedings can be a negative experience for victims of domestic abuse. Such proceedings can be used as a forum for abuse and control by perpetrators. Additionally, victims can feel that their experiences are minimised in proceedings and courts may not grant protective special measures.

In March 2018, the Government launched a consultation, Transforming the Response to Domestic Abuse. It sought views on a draft domestic abuse bill and on the non-legislative proposals. On 21 January 2019, the Government published a draft bill “aimed at supporting victims and their families and pursuing offenders”. The bill would provide for a statutory definition of domestic abuse in England and Wales. It would also offer more protections for victims in criminal and civil justice proceedings. For example, prohibiting cross-examination in family courts and ensuring automatic eligibility for special measures in criminal courts.

The bill is currently subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a joint committee (appointed on 14 March 2019). A number of experts have called for the bill to go further, for example, by providing for the automatic provision of protective special measures in family courts.

This briefing describes the extent and impact of domestic abuse in the UK. It outlines current information on victims’ experiences of family courts and the availability of in-court protections. The briefing then provides an overview of the draft bill and reaction to the proposals around family courts.

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