The Missing Piece of the Puzzle: Fact Finds and Domestic Abuse in UK Family Courts

Articles

Far too often in family court proceedings in the UK, judges make critical decisions without ordering a vital investigatory report – the fact find. This in-depth assessment conducted by an independent social worker provides crucial insights when domestic abuse is alleged. Without it, survivors are left vulnerable and courts lack comprehensive understanding of risks. Fact finds must become a consistent requirement to ensure informed, safe rulings.

The Fact Find’s Vital Role

A fact find report involves extensive interviews by a social worker with all parties involved in a family court case. It objectively assesses and verifies any claims of domestic abuse. This results in a thorough account of the context, history and evidence surrounding the allegations.

Fact finds consider factors like patterns of coercive control, examination of police records, and interviews with wider sources like relatives or neighbours where appropriate.

The report offers judges substantiation of abuse claims that may otherwise rely solely on one party’s testimony. Crucially, it also identifies any risks to the child or abuse survivor if unsupervised contact is granted to the alleged perpetrator.

Fact finds must become an integral part of the family court process where abuse is alleged. For abuse survivors facing their perpetrators in court, securing a future free from harm depends on this change being achieved – it cannot… Share on X

This provides a balanced, multi-faceted view of the case when domestic abuse is disputed to inform judicial decisions on child arrangements. Recommendations cover options like supervised contact, no overnight stays, or no unsupervised contact.

Insights into safeguarding concerns and a clear evidentiary basis are essential when abuse is raised in proceedings. However, under current guidelines, a judge must specifically instruct for a fact find report to be produced. Without this request, there is a concerning gap in evidence available to the court.

The Current Failings

In many cases, including disputed child custody battles, judges do not order a fact find report.

Some may view it as an unnecessary delay when police records or other documents are available. Some underestimate its value compared to oral evidence given during the hearing. Others face pressure from time constraints and limited resources.

However, no other report provides the same level of independent scrutiny and balance in assessing abuse allegations as the fact find. Police records only cover reported incidents, not the long-term history. Witness testimonies in court hearings offer accounts without expert verification.

This means judges often lack the authoritative risk analysis and nuanced insight into claims that a fact find would have provided. The implications of relying on incomplete evidence are extremely concerning.

Consequences for Survivors

Without a fact find report, survivors of domestic abuse face profound risks. Their testimony stands alone, without the corroboration that fact finds provide. Alleged perpetrators can more easily dismiss, minimise or rebut their claims.

Judges then face difficulty validating survivors’ accounts when considering child contact arrangements or custody. Lacking the fact find’s risk assessment, courts underestimate the dangers of potential unsupervised contact with alleged abusers.

Without a fact find report, survivors of domestic abuse face profound risks. In tragic cases, lack of insight into the risks has led to serious harm or child deaths when unsupervised contact was granted to abusive parents. Share on X

This leads to unsafe child contact rulings that fail to protect survivors from further harm. In tragic cases, lack of insight into the risks has led to serious harm or child deaths when unsupervised contact was granted to abusive parents.

Even when contact is made supervised, the lack of a fact find means conditions like supervision hours or location are set without a full understanding of what is necessary to prevent further abuse. Judges balancing contact versus safety cannot strike this delicate equilibrium without the fact find’s impartial, comprehensive input.

Urgent Need for Change

While some judges routinely order fact finds, especially in higher courts, this best practice is far from consistent across the family court system.

Research shows that in recent years, fact finds took place in just 37% of family court cases where domestic abuse was alleged and disputed. That leaves an alarming 63% lacking this vital evidence.

The shortcomings leave many abuse survivors dangerously unprotected. Some also face the traumatic ordeal of not being believed in court when a fact find would have verified their account.

To address this, judicial training must emphasise the importance of fact finds wherever abuse is disputed in proceedings. Courts require a culture shift to make fact finds a default requirement rather than an optional extra. Resources must be directed to fund quality reports. Regulation and oversight are also needed to ensure consistency. Courts relying on incomplete evidence are failing vulnerable families. Access to justice should not depend on the judge you are assigned.

Fact finds provide the missing but most fundamental piece of the puzzle and must become an integral part of the family court process where abuse is alleged. For abuse survivors facing their perpetrators in court, securing a future free from harm depends on this change being achieved – it cannot come too soon.


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