This is a guest post from Bob Greig, Co Chair of Only Mums and Only Dads and co author of 101 Questions Answered About Separating With Children (links below). Bob tweets as @OnlyDads.

I have been asked to write a few words on the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) public call for evidence and the appointment of their Panel. The Panel is to gather evidence on how the family courts protect children and parents in cases of domestic abuse.

The MOJ website has now named the Panel members and explains that they are representatives from organisations from across family justice including the Judiciary, academia, social care, policy officials and third sector organisations.

The Panel members can be seen here.

Let me begin by summarising what I read from the @onlydads Twitter followers. If you let it, Twitter can do your thinking for you! Within 24 hours it was informing me that:

a.   Apart from Mr Justice Cobb, the line-up is all female and will therefore be biased against men.

b.   The whole review has only been set up as a knee-jerk reaction to the Victoria Derbyshire BBC programme, which was itself one-sided and clearly biased against men and to add insult to injury, three months isn’t anywhere near long enough to undertake a proper review. 

c.   The Panel lacks representation from charities or organisations working with male victims of domestic abuse, which will mean any recommendations made by the Panel will be ultimately be skewed/biased towards women.

d.   There are no jobbing solicitors/ barristers on the Panel and this is an oversight as those at the “coalface” really know what is going on. 

In short, news of this review and the appointment of the Panel members has been met by many with a degree of negativity. That said, we remain optimistic that positive things will come from this review. I’ll explain my reasoning – but before I do, and by way of introduction to those who don’t know us, OnlyMums & OnlyDads is a registered not for profit organisation that (as the name suggests) deals with both mums and dads. We run a free email exchange and web chat, and while we don’t deal with whole cases from beginning to end, we can and do offer parents that initial bit of signposting to help sort out their issue(s). We rely heavily on our Family Law Panel mediators and solicitors, many of whom are accredited DV specialists, to help with the follow on support and direction. Domestic abuse as a named issue comes up in roughly 20% of all cases we deal with.

Our rapid in and out signposting service has weaknesses as well as strengths. While we never get to see the whole story or how it ends, we have, over the years, offered initial direction on over 15,000 situations. For the context of this review we have a rare insight into the problems parents are facing.

The oft repeated ones are:

  • Being accused of abuse and not knowing how to defend themselves in court.
  • One parent taking unilateral action to stop the other parent from seeing their child(ren) and that parent, seeing the harm it is doing to their children, not knowing where to go to resolve matters and/or the courts taking many months to help reinstate contact.
  • Unresolved parental conflict going on and on and the re-igniting of these past conflicts when one parent finds a new partner.
  • Situations where our exchanges have left us feeling that severe domestic abuse is or has taken place leaving the victim in a shell shock like condition, not knowing where to go for help and stuck in a state of real confusion.

What are the reasons for optimism?

The MOJ have declared that this review “will build a more detailed understanding of any harm caused during or following proceedings in the family court”, and the fact that they have included academics who will surely be wanting further research and evidence before drawing conclusions has to be a positive. Of course, not much will change in three months but we hope it will set the right course for ongoing reform.

The fact that we have a senior judge on the Panel as well as academics gives confidence that balance will be brought to the work. The subject matter is so sensitive and it’s easy to see that some of the campaigning organisations may become a little myopic and miss the bigger picture. It’s important that the review has this counter-balance in place.

Thirdly, this review gives the opportunity to review and assess how the Children Act and the Courts and professionals who work with it can better prevent harm to children. I think all of us who work with separating parents will know that it is children that end up paying the price of parental conflict. The work of this Panel is vitally important and it’s positive that this review has been launched.

From my perspective there are a number of key questions that need further research and action. These include:

  • What harm is being done to children by suddenly and un-justifiably cutting off contact with one parent and how is that measured? How many children are affected, and how can family courts reduce the time it takes stop this harm to children (and the other parent) escalating?
  • What additional training is needed for judges and legal professionals to better understand coercive control and the way some parents deploy such control in the family law arena? 
  • What practical steps can be taken to support parents having to come to court with an abusive ex-partner?

The full list of questions that this review can begin to answer goes on and on; these are a few that we hear parents asking for.

I want to end by suggesting that there is something we can all do to support the Panel’s work. It’s about the way we hold our public and on-line discourse. I mentioned above that this is a sensitive subject and some firm positions are held. But that shouldn’t stop us all being polite and constructive. Commissioning further research, drilling down into the facts and data…I think we all have a role to play if we are to bring the best out of this opportunity.

I wish all the Panel members and especially the support staff well. I started my working life in administration and know that very often the best work can be done behind the scenes. 

OnlyMums & OnlyDads compiled and edited 101 Questions Answered About Separating With Children” (Bath Publishing). It was published in January 2019.

PS : You can read other posts on this topic by Charlotte Proudman here and our chair here.

Feature pic : listen by Jay Morrison on Flickr (creative commons – thanks!)