How do courts deal with allegations of domestic violence?
This article reports on the recent case of Re HN and what can be learned from the judgment.
What is domestic violence?
Domestic abuse or domestic violence can include psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional abuse. It can also include coercive behaviour (such as threats, humiliation or intimidation) and controlling behaviour (such as isolating the victim from friends and family, or controlling their everyday actions).
Last month, the Court of Appeal gave its judgment in the case of Re HN. This case was a conjoined appeal of four different cases involving allegations of domestic violence in cases concerning children. In its judgment, the court emphasised that:
- domestic abuse can involve a pattern of behaviour rather than specific incidents, although specific incidents may also be relevant; and
- domestic abuse can continue after a relationship has ended.
Cafcass is an independent organisation that advises the family courts in cases concerning children. Before the first hearing in any case about children, Cafcass will carry out ‘safeguarding checks’. This involves checking whether the police or local authority have been involved with the family. An officer from Cafcass will also speak to both parents to ask whether they believe that there are any risks to the child’s safety – for example, domestic violence, mental health issues, or drug or alcohol abuse by the other parent.
Cafcass will then summarise this information for the court in a document called a ‘safeguarding letter’. The Cafcass officer will also make a recommendation to the court about next steps. For example, they may recommend that a section 7 report is prepared, or that a fact finding hearing takes place.
Section 7 report
If there are concerns about domestic violence, the court may ask Cafcass to prepare a further report, called a ‘section 7 report’. In this report Cafcass may look at whether the children are at risk of harm, and make recommendations about what the court should do to prevent the child from being harmed. The Cafcass officer may speak with the child themselves, or with other people involved in the child’s life, such as relatives, teachers or health workers.
Fact finding hearings
Where there are allegations of domestic violence which are not admitted, a ‘fact finding hearing’ may be required. The purpose of this hearing is to decide – on the balance of probabilities – whether each allegation is proven or not.
The court may order the parties to prepare a Scott Schedule before a fact finding hearing. This document summarises the allegations made by each party, and the other side’s response to those allegations. The court limits the number of allegations which can be included, often to five or six. In Re H-N, the court recognised that this document may not be fit for purpose because it encourages a focus on individual incidents rather than patterns of behaviour. To address this issue, the court suggested that both parents should also be asked to describe their overall experience of being in a relationship with one another.
A subsequent hearing will then take place at which the court decides what arrangements should be put in place for the child, on the basis of that any allegations which were proven at the fact finding hearing did, in fact, take place.
The judgment of the court in Re H-N indicated that a modern approach to domestic abuse is required, which recognises the many different forms that such abuse can take. However, the procedure that courts follow in these types of cases – in particular, the use of Scott Schedules – encourages a focus on individual incidents rather than patterns of behaviour. The court has recognised this as a problem, but it remains to be seen how this problem will be tackled.