Why does the Family Court hear domestic abuse cases in private? (1)

20170722_161644Domestic abuse and children

Family Court domestic abuse hearings can be dealt with in open court; but they are being heard in secret. The public cannot see what is being done by family courts in its name, even though – on the same facts – if a violent man is prosecuted the criminal proceedings will be in open court. But, it is said, if proceedings are held in open court will not that frighten the complainant, and risk perpetuating – but now openly – the abuse she complains of? Some procedures are available to protect complainants but they are rarely used by family courts or lawyers. Other procedures are available in criminal proceedings, but are still not available to the Family Court. This and a second post examine these issues.

In her Guardian article, ‘Why do we separate the mother and child victims of domestic abuse’ (20 November 2018) Louise Tickle drew attention to the dire circumstances of mothers who lost their children because of domestic violence. This might be to the care of a local authority. A judge in care cases (she suggests it is quite frequent) ‘is told that the mother has “failed to prioritise her children’s needs over her own”. Social services know perfectly well that the abuse isn’t the victim’s fault – but, they tell the court, she’s the only protective factor in her kids’ lives. And she’s failing at it.’

 

This post will assume that the complainant partner or spouse is (as is mostly the case) a mother. The social services department, if involved, assumes that the children will remain with her. The father has been responsible for domestic abuse (violence, controlling behaviour and so on: a subject considered by me eg here and here (in relation to ‘open court hearings’)).

 

The treatment of a complainant parent in the way described by Louise Tickle way is, as the Guardian says, ‘grotesque’. And it is grotesque on a number of levels. This and a following post look will look at three features of the way domestic abuse cases are dealt with by the family courts, namely:

 

  • 1 Claims by mothers are being dealt with in private (or secret). This is probably unlawful. Criminal proceedings on the same domestic abuse facts are dealt with in open court; so that the ‘grotesque’ features described by Louise Tickle go unchecked.
  • 2 In all family courts hearings the complainant partner’s (and perhaps a child’s) evidence is given face to face with the allegedly violent respondent, not for example by video link or pre-recorded evidence.
  • 3 Family courts still have no way of preventing violent or abusive partners from cross-examining their victims; where in criminal courts lawyers can be appointed to take on the cross-examination role.

 

The first question, which this post seeks to address, is that of private family courts. (Meanwhile domestic abuse proceedings are the subject of Home Office consultation (previously discussed by me here).) The procedural matters which arise from the second two questions will be dealt with in a separate post.

 

At present the abused parent – in the procedure discussed by Louise Tickle – applies to the Family Court for a non-molestation order. If the complainant proves she has been ‘molested’ (ie made the subject of domestic abuse) she will have an injunctions (a court order which tells her former partner not to ‘molest’ her); and her former partner may also be excluded from their home (if he is still there). If he breaches the orders – ie is responsible for further abusive behaviour, which is proved – he may be sent to prison (though this is often not until after a number of successive complaints to the Family Court have been made by a wife/mother).

 

Meanwhile, says Louise Tickle, ‘children are being taken into care in unprecedented numbers, and losing their human right to live with their birth families because women are being blamed, rather than helped. Removing children from mothers suffering domestic abuse prioritises short-term safety over the much bigger win that would help keep a family physically and psychologically intact in the longer term.’

 

Open court or private hearings

 

So should cases be heard in open court? And if not, why not?

 

Domestic abuse proceedings are ‘family proceedings’ (ie they deal with issues which need to be resolved for a broken family). Family proceedings are dealt with in private (ie no one but the parties and court staff etc) can go into court. This privacy is required by the court rules. For good measure the rules say, in the part which deals with domestic abuse, ‘applications for an occupation order or non-molestation order will be in private’. But is this the law?

 

It is an old rule – what lawyers call ‘trite’ law – that a court rule cannot override the law. A court rule is not law. It can only dictate how the procedure which defines the law is to operate. Thus, the common law says that all court hearings shall be in open court, with certain long-standing exceptions (listed later).

 

In 1913 in a family law nullity case, where a husband had said he did not want everyone to know he was incapable of sex with his wife, the House of Lords said to him, ‘tough’; only a limited band of cases (and his was not one) could be heard privately (Scott & Anor v Scott [1913] UKHL 2, [1913] AC 417). In 1913 this limited band was as Lord Shaw said (echoing the words of other law lords), confined to three categories of case which are (adopting the terminology of the time): ‘The three exceptions which are acknowledged to the application of the rule prescribing the publicity of Courts of justice are, first, in suits affecting wards; secondly, in lunacy proceedings; and, thirdly, in those cases where secrecy, as, for instance, the secrecy of a process of manufacture or discovery or invention — trade secrets — is of the essence of the cause.’

 

To this list the common law in 2018 has added

 

  • Matters relating to national security
  • Proceedings concerning confidential information, where publicity would damage that confidentiality
  • An interim hearing where publicity would be unjust (eg the recent Philip Green Court of Appeal hearing and Peter Hain)

 

None of this list of six categories of case – which still represent the law over 100 years later – includes domestic abuse, whether in the Family Court or in any other court. But can the rule makers (who are entirely undemocratic) change the common law. No, they are not. Subsequent Supreme Court authority has confirmed that. Only another decision of the Supreme Court or a statute can change what is in the common law.

 

Why hearings in open court?

 

The reason for open court hearings has been explained by judges frequently. Recently in a case where the Guardian sought documents from a magistrates’ court extradition hearing (which the Court of Appeal agreed the Guardian should have) Lord Justice Toulson said of ‘open justice’: ‘The words express a principle at the heart of our system of justice and vital to the rule of law. The rule of law is a fine concept but fine words butter no parsnips. How is the rule of law itself to be policed? It is an age old question. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes – who will guard the guards themselves? In a democracy, where power depends on the consent of the people governed, the answer must lie in the transparency of the legal process.’

 

The judge continued: ‘Jeremy Bentham explained this: “Publicity is the very soul of justice. It is the keenest spur to exertion and the surest of all guards against improbity. It keeps the judge himself while trying under trial.”’

 

And surely this statement from Jeremy Bentham is why, in principle and subject to protection for the complainants (to be discussed in the second post), that domestic abuse hearings should be in open court? They would be dealt with in open court before a jury on the same domestic abuse facts. Provided that the welfare and anonymity of any children involved is protected – as it is in the Crown Court – then the law (ie as distinct from the rules) is, I believe, that these proceedings should be in open court.

 

If judges and local authorities are behaving as Louise Tickle says they are; or if violent men are being dealt with leniently; and all this is being covered up or glossed over because of the secrecy of Family Court proceedings, then the way in which these cases are dealt with in the family courts should, surely, be seriously questioned. The first thing is to ask: does the law say these cases can be dealt with in private; and if not to open up domestic abuse courts to Benthamite publicity. This is what I believe the common law requires.

4 thoughts on “Why does the Family Court hear domestic abuse cases in private? (1)

  1. Pingback: Domestic abuse in the family courts: how can proceedings be made more civilised? (2) | dbfamilylaw

  2. Reblogged this on | truthaholics and commented:
    “It is an old rule – what lawyers call ‘trite’ law – that a court rule cannot override the law. A court rule is not law. It can only dictate how the procedure which defines the law is to operate. Thus, the common law says that all court hearings shall be in open court, with certain long-standing exceptions (listed later).”

    “The rule of law is a fine concept but fine words butter no parsnips. How is the rule of law itself to be policed? It is an age old question. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes – who will guard the guards themselves? In a democracy, where power depends on the consent of the people governed, the answer must lie in the transparency of the legal process.’

    The judge continued: ‘Jeremy Bentham explained this: “Publicity is the very soul of justice. It is the keenest spur to exertion and the surest of all guards against improbity. It keeps the judge himself while trying under trial.”’

    And surely this statement from Jeremy Bentham is why, in principle and subject to protection for the complainants (to be discussed in the second post), that domestic abuse hearings should be in open court? They would be dealt with in open court before a jury on the same domestic abuse facts. Provided that the welfare and anonymity of any children involved is protected – as it is in the Crown Court – then the law (ie as distinct from the rules) is, I believe, that these proceedings should be in open court.

    If judges and local authorities are behaving as Louise Tickle says they are; or if violent men are being dealt with leniently; and all this is being covered up or glossed over because of the secrecy of Family Court proceedings, then the way in which these cases are dealt with in the family courts should, surely, be seriously questioned. The first thing is to ask: does the law say these cases can be dealt with in private; and if not to open up domestic abuse courts to Benthamite publicity. This is what I believe the common law requires.”

  3. We need people who have experienced and understand abuse to be involved in the process . ,. Demestic abuse services , health visitors,police officers , GPS, school and nursery staff, will be able to give a background and clearer picture to what is actually happening and build up a background of the case, instead of a snapshot in time that is usually masterminded by the manipulative abuser to look the opposite to what is actually happening. Get all of them around the table with the social worker ,judge, parents and make it open court. Stop using the law and practice directions and get justice for the victims . Stop the abuse instead of enabling it! SAVE LIVES ?

    • Many thanks. I like the idea of all round the table and openness (save any par of the hearing has to deal with children). We need to find a process which stops further abuse, and which is fair

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