Domestic violence reforms: family law experts say ‘No’ to specialist courts

Cases of domestic violence should remain the preserve of the family courts, family law practitioners argued this week in response to a Government consultation paper.
The Solicitors Family Law Association (SFLA) supported the proposals, which have the strong backing of the Solicitor General, Harriet Harman QC, and are outlined in a consultation paper, ‘Safety and Justice’. “We welcome the paper but the emphasis is very much on the criminal side and the punishment of the offender, and the way we see it is that family courts are about the protection of the sufferer and that should always be the priority,” said Jane McCulloch, chairman of the SFLA Domestic Abuse Committee. The group has called for amendments to the court rules to allow for “the exchange of information between the civil and criminal courts, rather than establishing specialist domestic violence courts”. In particular, it called for “a national protocol” covering the exchange of information between the two jurisdictions.
McCulloch continued: “We have to remember that we’re dealing with family situations whether parties are married or unmarried, it doesn’t matter. The family court deals with all the other aspects of the problem, such as children, divorce and finances and it understands the knock-on effects of domestic violence cases whereas the criminal court deals with a case in isolation.”
The SFLA backed the idea of a computer record of convictions for domestic violence offences and orders. But there were concerns about any comparison with the Sex Offenders Register. “We fear that this might drive the problem underground,” McCulloch added.
The group also took the opportunity to recommend that the sufferers of domestic abuse should be automatically accorded the status of vulnerable witnesses in the criminal courts. Consequently, their address details should not be disclosed except on application to the court. It also backed the idea that the criminal courts should not make bail conditions that allow contact with the children of the family unless there is a court order or agreement between the parties.