The news of the deaths of Emma Pattison and her daughter Lettie, believed to be at the hands of Emma’s husband and Lettie’s father, has led to shock waves and widespread condemnation in the media and society. In her tribute to her friend and colleague the head of the Girls Day School Trust, Cheryl Giovannoni, made the chilling comment that ‘it doesn’t matter how brilliant or successful a woman is she is only as safe as her male partner allows her to be’. Her comment highlights the fact that domestic abuse has no niche and indeed transcends society. It also brings into sharp focus the fact that in many instances children are not protected in these relationships and indeed can be victims themselves. This interplay between domestic abuse and child contact is the subject of a study by the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research published just this month.
The report presents the finding of the Domestic Abuse and Child Contact; The Interface between Criminal and Civil Proceedings research which was funded by the Scottish Government and conducted by Glasgow University and Napier University. The study had four aims. The aims of the study were to firstly understand the ways in which domestic abuse proceedings may inform the handling and decision-making in child contact cases. The second aim was to explore what family law practitioners understood in relation to the impact and relevance of any such abuse and the implication for contact cases. This was with reference to involvement of s.11 7A-C of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. The third aim was to identify any impediments or obstacles to communication and information exchange in such cases. The final aim was to examine the links between domestic abuse and criminal proceedings. The study involved engagement from practitioners of family law.
What is clear from the research is that there is no firm statistical basis for how many cases involving contact have an element of domestic abuse. What is known however, is that domestic abuse is harmful to children, and they must be protected from the same. Domestic abuse is an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) and often the abused parent is their primary ‘buffer’ to help limit for the effect of that trauma. Accordingly, protection of the child should go hand in hand with the parent who is their protective factor, and no order for contact should make the circumstances for the parent or child worse off because of the order.
The study reached a total of twelve recommendations on completion. Those include proposals for specialist training in domestic abuse and coercive control for the justiciary and family law practitioners. It also suggests the routine use of risk assessments and ingathering of data on the effect of domestic abuse on child contact cases and decisions. The welfare of the child remains the paramount consideration and with that in mind any issues of abuse should be flagged at the outset so that practitioners can utilise the protection from abuse provisions which already exist in Scottish legislation (in the Children (Scotland) Act 1995). The recommendations highlight that special consideration should be given to the child’s views and how they will be obtained.
How the research will be implemented is certainly worth keeping under review. The report itself is a stark reminder of where we are and where we need to be in terms of protecting children in contact actions where there has been abuse including coercive control. It reminds us how mindful we all should be to this issue. Children should always be front and centre in decisions and any order for contact should benefit them and not serve to expose them to further trauma.
If you have any questions about these matters, our experienced Family Law team would be happy to help.
Gayle Middleton, Senior Associate: email@example.com / 0141 221 8012