Presumption of Parental Involvement in Child Arrangements

– in the House of Commons am 6:26 pm ar 13 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Aaron Bell.)

Photo of Kate Kniveton Kate Kniveton Ceidwadwyr, Burton 6:27, 13 Mawrth 2024

I am grateful to have the chance to speak in the Chamber on the presumption of parental involvement in child arrangements. When I was elected, I made a promise to be an advocate for victims of domestic abuse. At that time, I had no idea that the court proceedings between my ex-husband and me would continue for another four years, restricting my ability to raise publicly the horrors of the family court system for those who have been a victim of rape, abuse and coercive control, as I have. In a landmark ruling in 2021, I waived my right to anonymity and the Court of Appeal ruled that the findings of fact against my ex-husband, confirming the allegations I had made against him of repeated rape and abuse, should be made public. The Court, in its judgment, found that I had been subjected to the vilest abuse, and that Andrew Griffiths had used his position of power to cause the utmost physical and emotional distress against me.

Those who know me well will know that I am usually a very private person. The thought of allowing reporters to write about what had happened to me—very private details, many of which I had covered up for years—was a terrifying one, but after years of being bullied and controlled by a seemingly powerful man, I knew that I had to stand up and use my platform to help others.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Ceidwadwyr, Basingstoke

I commend my hon. Friend for her strength, courage and tenacity in speaking up on this important issue, drawing on her personal experience. She is a great role model for us all.

Photo of Kate Kniveton Kate Kniveton Ceidwadwyr, Burton

I thank my right hon. Friend.

Despite the landmark ruling that I achieved, my time within the family court system was far from over. Despite the Court confirming that my child’s father was abusive and a rapist, it was decided that contact should continue through a contact centre and that I should pay for 50% of the cost of that contact. I could not believe that anyone felt my child, whom I had been fighting to protect, would benefit from further contact with such an abusive and violent man, and that I—someone who had been subjected to that violent behaviour—should not only facilitate that contact but pay towards it.

Thankfully, after further costly and lengthy legal proceedings, a ruling was made to overturn that decision. Hopefully that has set a precedent that a victim of rape should not have to subsidise the rapist’s costs of contact.

Despite the public reporting of my case, I was not able to speak freely of my experiences until the final decision was made. However, after a gruelling five years, a ruling was delivered last month that confirmed that Andrew Griffiths, the former MP and Minister, should no longer be allowed contact with his child—my child. I had finally achieved a ruling after making the case that the man who had abused me over a 10-year period was not safe to have contact with our child.

I am really thankful that those proceedings have now concluded and, although I am traumatised not just by the 10 years of abuse I experienced at the hands of my ex-husband but by the following five years in which he continued to use the legal system to abuse me, I will not hesitate to tell my story and to try to make the changes that will help other women protect their children.

These were landmark rulings because, until now, other victims of domestic abuse, violence and rape have not been able to offer protection to their children in the same way or to talk about their family court experiences. Having lived with the thought of the prospect for many years, I can only imagine what it feels like to hand your child over to someone who has caused you, and continues to cause you, so much harm.

I stand in the Chamber today as a supposed winner, congratulated on succeeding against my ex-husband, but quite frankly I stand here drained financially and emotionally. I am not sure this is what people believe winning feels like, but I know what the alternative must feel like and I will do all I can to stand beside those fighting for their children’s safety. I want to give them hope that this Government recognise the problems in the family court and are determined to help.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I spoke to the hon. Lady beforehand, and I thank her for using this platform to tell her personal story. It takes real bravery to stand up and speak about an issue that not only means something to her but that she has lived through. She has shown exceptional courage in doing so, and we all admire her for it.

I come to the crux of my intervention, which we discussed beforehand. In so many cases, victims of domestic abuse are absolutely terrified about speaking up. There must be more encouragement from our Ministers, our Government and our fellow MPs to ensure that the trauma is not prolonged and that women feel supported to speak up and, in doing so, tell others in similar situations that they are not alone. I say to the hon. Lady, you can be sure that you are not alone.

Photo of Kate Kniveton Kate Kniveton Ceidwadwyr, Burton

I thank my hon. Friend, and I absolutely agree with his point. Domestic abuse is something that happens behind closed doors. If people do not speak out about it, perpetrators will know that it is going to stay behind closed doors. That is why I agreed to the publication of my judgment, in the hope that it will encourage more people to speak out and that it will help future victims and survivors.

I am proud of the work that the Government have done, and I am proud that my party introduced the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which is an incredibly important piece of legislation. The Act provides much-needed clarity that domestic abuse comes in many forms and can be financial, verbal and emotional, as well as physical and sexual. It also recognises that abuse can be a result of patterns over time. The definition also explicitly recognises children as victims if they witness that abuse.

The Act allowed for a Domestic Abuse Commissioner to be appointed to stand up for victims and survivors. I pay tribute to the work of the commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, and her team, who work tirelessly to stand up for victims and survivors; to raise public awareness; and to monitor the response of local authorities, the justice system and other statutory agencies, and hold them to account in tackling domestic abuse. I am grateful for the chance I have had to work with the commissioner and contribute to her report on achieving cultural change in the family court.

Beyond the Domestic Abuse Act, the Government have continued to listen and learn from the experiences of domestic abuse victims. In May 2019, the Government announced an expert panel to look at how the family courts protect children and victims in child arrangement cases relating to domestic abuse and other serious offences. The panel’s final report, “Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases”, was published in June 2020. It raised concerns about

“how the family court system recognises and responds to allegations of, and proven harm to children and victim parents in private law children proceedings.”

It stated:

“Submissions highlighted a feeling that abuse is systematically minimised, ranging from children’s voices not being heard, allegations being ignored, dismissed or disbelieved, to inadequate assessment of risk, traumatic court processes, perceived unsafe child arrangements, and abusers exercising continued control through repeat litigation and the threat of repeat litigation.”

The report said that these issues were underpinned by a number of themes, including a “pro-contact culture”.

That report was released almost four years ago. Let us ignore for a second the fact that at the heart of this, the report confirms that victims of domestic abuse are being further traumatised by the court process, and let us look instead at the potential harm to children. Their voices are not being heard, there is inadequate assessment of risk and there are unsafe child arrangements. Perhaps in his response, the Minister might consider how much harm to children has taken place in the four years since those findings were released.

The report echoes many of the experiences the women who have contacted me have shared. It said that

“respondents felt there was little difference in the orders made between cases that did and did not feature domestic abuse” and that the courts

“almost always ordered some form of contact, frequently unrestricted, and usually without requiring an alleged abuser to address their behaviour”.

It also said:

“Respondents felt that orders made by the court had enabled the continued control of children and adult victims of domestic abuse by alleged abusers, as well as the continued abuse of victims and children.”

It went on to say that respondents “raised concerns” that PD12J, the practice direction that sets out what the court should do in any case in which domestic abuse is alleged or admitted,

“is not operating as intended and is being implemented inconsistently”.

Regarding the presumption of parental involvement specifically, many mothers felt that the presumption

“gave the abusive parent power over the non-abusive parent and the children, and a legal weapon the abuser could use at will”.

They also felt it put a misplaced emphasis on the child’s right to a relationship with both parents, and the father’s right to family life, above the child’s welfare and right to be safe from abuse and its effects. The report said:

“Overall, the evidence received by the panel suggests that the presumption is implemented inconsistently and is rarely disapplied. To the extent that the courts’ pro-contact culture operates as a barrier to addressing domestic abuse, it serves to reinforce that culture.”

It recommended that:

“A review of the presumption of parental involvement…is needed urgently in order to address its detrimental effects.”

An urgent review is needed. It is urgent because of the risk of harm to children, yet almost four years on we are still waiting to hear about that review. The Government had originally expected to complete the review by the summer of 2021. I met the then Justice Secretary in 2021 and offered my support to his team to help them make the positive changes needed. In early 2022, I was advised that the review had been delayed by covid-19, but I was reassured that good progress was being made in taking the work forward. When I raised the matter in this House in early 2023, I was advised that the response to the review would be published

“very soon—as soon as we can do so.”—[Official Report, 21 February 2023;
Vol. 728, c. 121.]

In mid-2023, in a further update from the Justice Secretary, I was advised that it had taken longer than expected but that the report would be published later that year. In a response to a parliamentary question in November 2023, the Minister advised that it would be published in early 2024.

How many court hearings involving children at risk of abuse have taken place over the years while we have been waiting for the review? A horrifying example of two children, who were murdered by their father after it was ruled that it was in their interests to maintain contact with him, was raised previously in the House. In responding to a question about that case, the Justice Minister, my hon. Friend Mike Freer, explained that:

“The review has to be carefully considered, because of the complexities of parental involvement”.—[Official Report, 16 May 2023;
Vol. 732, c. 690.]

That feels like we are prioritising the needs of the abuser again.

While we await the review, why do we not prioritise the safety of the child and change the presumption? Where there has been a history of harm, the onus should be on the abusive parent to prove that they should have the contact, not the other way around. Imagine someone having the courage to escape a relationship, to keep themself and their children safe, and putting their trust in our legal system to continue those protections, only to find that they are locked in a further battle with a court that prioritises the right of an abuser to see their child over the safety of the child itself.

Despite everything I have been through, I know that I am lucky. Many would give anything to have received the judgment I did. I am grateful to have had a fantastic legal team: Melanie Bridgen, my solicitor, and Charlotte Proudman, my barrister. Dr Proudman is an incredible advocate on behalf of survivors of domestic abuse and founded the organisation Right to Equality, which is also campaigning for a change in this pro-contact culture.

Right to Equality states:

“Family law reinforces a cultural and legal norm of parental responsibility for both parents, even in cases involving rape and murder by parents, often fathers. This approach fails to adequately consider the safety and well-being of survivors and their children, perpetuating an environment that can place them at risk. Under statute, a married father can never have his parental responsibility removed even if he killed the child’s mother or violently assaulted the child.”

Many case law examples show how survivors’ pleas for protective measures are disregarded and highlight the need for the Government’s urgent attention to fix our statute book.

Research conducted by a team led by the University of Manchester spoke to 45 mothers of 77 children, all of whom reported experiencing abuse. Perhaps the most alarming finding of that study was that 75 out of 77 children were forced into contact with fathers they had reported for abuse, even in cases involving sex abuse convictions. This Government, which has done so much for victims of domestic abuse, need to fix the existing statutory and de facto presumption of child contact at all costs. I urge the Minister to bring forward the review without further delay, to bring about legislative change that creates a safer environment for children and to support a presumption of no child contact in cases where domestic abuse is a relevant factor.

The Minister’s review did not come quickly enough to help me, and I too was dangerously close to being let down by our legal system. Through using every penny I could get my hands on, and every ounce of resilience I could muster to stand in court and repeatedly tell my story, I was able to achieve a landmark ruling. It should not be the exception that only my child has protection from a man found by a court to have committed multiple accounts of rape and abuse against the mother. That should be the standard.

It should send a clear message to those who carry out acts of abuse that it does not matter whether they are an MP or have any other public profile: if they are found by a court to have raped or abused the parent of their child, they are no longer entitled to assume that that child will benefit from contact with them. I ask the Minister today to reform that presumption urgently. Contact should be earned; it should not be given to abusers.

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 6:43, 13 Mawrth 2024

I congratulate my hon. Friend Kate Kniveton on securing this important debate. I sincerely commend the bravery she has shown by sharing her story and using her experience to support others in similar circumstances. I often find that the House is at its best when colleagues from across the House use their own personal experience to help shape legislation and improve things for those who follow them.

I apologise if some of what I have to say will sound rather cold and clinical, but, sadly, the law is not always warm and friendly, as much as we would like it to be. I will come on to the presumption of parental involvement, but I wish to begin by saying that the acts of abuse perpetrated by the ex-partner of my hon. Friend were clearly and totally abhorrent.

Sadly, the frequency and intensity of violence, psychological abuse, sexual assault, and other types of domestic abuse within households is the horrific reality for too many people in this country, and particularly—although not exclusively—for women and girls. The Government, including myself and my noble Friend Lord Bellamy, are committed to taking every possible action to stop this, and to allowing victims of abuse and their children to live free of the fear and harm inflicted by their abusers.

When such cases come to the family court, the Government are dedicated to ensuring that the court can identify and safeguard both children and parents against such abuse. When the court makes a decision that affects a child, the involvement of parents is often a factor. However, it is the welfare of the child that is the court’s utmost priority in every case. That principle, of the paramountcy of the child’s welfare, is what underpins the Children Act 1989.

The court does seek to protect the adults in a child’s life from harm; for cases involving domestic abuse, the provisions of this are also enshrined in our laws and rules of court. For example, the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 prevents cross-examination of victims by perpetrators and requires rules of court to be made about special measures for victims, such as screens to prevent them from seeing the perpetrator in court.

In family courts, practice direction 12J, as my hon. Friend mentioned, notes that the court must be satisfied that any order does not expose either the child or parent to a risk of further harm. Therefore, while the welfare of the child is absolutely paramount, the welfare of parent victims is an equally important consideration of the family court and of the Government.

Moving on to the presumption of parental involvement itself, the Government are very mindful of the need to ensure that, where it is safe, a child should benefit from the involvement of both parents in their lives, but I do stress that it is only where it is safe to do so.

The aim of the introduction of the statutory presumption in 2014 was to codify decades of existing case law and international commitments, and to place in law a process whereby the potential risk posed by a parent is fully considered, and only subsequently is their involvement in a child’s life considered.

The presumption is therefore designed to achieve two vitally important aims: to ensure that, when safe, children are able to maintain some form of relationship with both their parents, even after they separate; and to ensure that parents who may subject their child or ex-partner to the dangerous and despicable behaviours inherent in domestic abuse are prevented from involvement in their children’s lives. In the example given by my hon. Friend of the serious and horrific cases involving sexual abuse, let me tell her that when the parents in these cases present a risk of harm to their child, they should not be granted involvement in their life.

My hon. Friend has also raised the terrible circumstances in which one parent has murdered the other. We have amended the Victims and Prisoners Bill, so that parents who kill a partner or ex-partner with whom they have children will have their parental responsibility suspended upon sentencing. We are carefully considering options for strengthening the safeguards and procedures already in place to ensure that the family courts can properly protect children.

Ensuring that the survivors of domestic abuse are fully protected by the family court remains a priority for this Government. In 2019, the Ministry of Justice commissioned a review of how the risk of harm to children and parents was assessed in private family law—most commonly known as the harm panel report, to which my hon. Friend referred. Following the recommendations of the panel, we commissioned a further review of how the presumption of parental involvement was being applied in the family courts. I know that my hon. Friend, like several others in this House, has expressed concern over the time taken to complete the review. I can put on record that Ministers in the Department share that frustration of how long it has taken to bring forward our response.

As my hon. Friend said, the delay is, in part, due to covid making it difficult to conduct research, particularly in terms of accessing physical court files, and the challenges in accessing court documents that are in a useable format. However, I am delighted to be able to confirm that the review and the accompanying Government response into the presumption of parental involvement will in fact be published by late spring or early summer of this year. I hope that provides some reassurance that we at least have a slightly firmer date coming forward.

Again, I reassure my hon. Friend that Ministers are equally frustrated. We will bring the response forward. I assure her that the Ministry of Justice is giving full consideration to the literature review of the academic evidence, the sessions conducted with parents who have been through the family courts, the individual case file analysis, the contributions from stakeholders, and the feedback from the advisory board, which was established to ensure that we have drawn upon its expertise in working with victims and children.

The challenge of striking the right, careful balance between addressing the future risk to the child, and to the other parent, and the benefits of having two parents actively involved in the child’s life is one that has occupied Parliament, the judiciary and wider society for decades. It is crucial that, in setting out next steps from the review, we consider the full range of reforms at our disposal to manage the challenge. We must ensure that the understanding of the elements of risk and the best interests of the child in these cases is always clear, and that the balance of those elements is struck correctly.

Let me reiterate a few things that the Government have done to ensure that the child is at the centre, and that the family court system continues to reform and to be fit for purpose, ensuring that parents, and especially children, are protected. Last week, the Chancellor announced an additional £55 million for the family courts. A key element of that funding package is the commitment to funding the roll-out of the pathfinder court approach, which provides a more investigative approach to private law proceedings, with increased support for parties. The pilots engage domestic abuse agencies early on in proceedings to ensure that both parents and children are receiving the support and advice that they need. The approach also ensures that the needs and voice of the child are central to proceedings. That is achieved through detailed investigation into each individual child’s welfare and wishes early on in each case.

The pathfinder courts are currently operating in Dorset and north Wales, and expanding to Birmingham and south-east Wales in a matter of weeks. The additional funding will mean that many more families will benefit from the positive impacts of the model, with the roll-out of the pathfinder model across England and Wales happening as quickly as possible. The additional funding will also result in the creation of a new authoritative online support and advice service for separating parents, and the piloting of free early legal advice for those considering court to resolve their issues.

Over the past 13 years, we have also significantly increased the funding for independent domestic violence advisers, known as IDVAs, and independent sexual violence advisers, known as ISVAs, to support victims going through the family court. We have brought 43% more of those vital professionals into post from 2009-2010 to 2023, with the Ministry of Justice increasing IDVA and ISVA spending by over four times what it was in 2009-2010. Since November 2023, we have also increased our investment by £1.2 million over two years.

Rather than read out many more statistics, let me address one of the issues that my hon. Friend raised, which was the cost—the financial cost, let alone the mental cost. That is why we have been reforming the access to legal aid for victims of domestic abuse. Recently, we have changed the thresholds for income and capital; introduced a new lone parent allowance; created a mandatory disregard of inaccessible capital from the means assessment; removed the cap on the value of capital assets that are not considered in the means test assessment when they are disputed assets; and extended the equity disregard to apply to those who are forced to flee their homes. That will prevent victims who may be on a low income from having to sell their homes.

I share the frustration of my hon. Friend, and I have to say that her story and her campaigning have been incredibly moving. I hope that this Government will be able to address her concerns in the coming months, when we finally publish our response to the report.

Those who have perpetrated abuse against their partner or ex-partner should absolutely feel the consequences of that action. Our reforms of the family courts will continue to increase the support for survivors of domestic abuse and will aim to ensure that parents and children are protected against the abhorrent crime of domestic abuse.

Finally, I thank my hon. Friend once again for securing this debate to examine the issues. I hope that we have gone some way towards explaining how seriously the Government consider them and how seriously we are committed to bringing forward our response in the next few months.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.