The Modern Day Witch Trials: How UK Family Courts Are Failing Women


In 1692, the Salem Witch Trials resulted in the wrongful executions of 20 innocent people, falsely accused of witchcraft. Over 300 years later, are we seeing a modern-day version of these witch trials play out in UK family courts?

Troubling Parallels

There is growing concern that misogyny and bias against women in family courts is leading to countless injustices and failing to protect victims of domestic abuse. The parallels with the historic witch trials are disturbing. During the Salem Witch Trials, women were presumed guilty based on flimsy evidence and hysteria. Today, women making accusations of abuse are often dismissed and not believed. The courts fail to adequately investigate claims, preferring to paint women as unstable liars.

Back in 1692, the word of powerful men was enough to condemn the powerless to death. Now, the UK family court system is heavily weighted against women. Despite reforms, judges and court-appointed experts called in to assess parents (such as CAFCASS officers) are dominated by older men. Their biases against women mean mothers making abuse allegations are frequently labelled “implacable hosts” while controlling and abusive fathers are granted access to children.

Testimony Dismissed, Motives Questioned

Where is the justice when women must prove domestic abuse before any action is taken, yet their testimony is automatically viewed with suspicion? When women speak up, they are pathologized, called mentally ill, hysterical or vengeful. Their stories are picked apart, motives questioned. The traumatic impact of abuse is used to undermine their credibility. The same tropes leveraged against innocent women at the stake in Salem are weaponized to gaslight victims and favor abusers in UK family courts.

Failing to Protect the Vulnerable

This failure to protect is a national scandal. Countless cases have exposed the systemic bias. In 2007, a Warwickshire mother was forced by the courts to send her 3 year old daughter unsupervised to stay with the girl’s father – despite over 30 recorded incidents of domestic violence. The father went on to murder the toddler.

Time and again, when mothers raise valid concerns for their children’s safety, they are threatened with removal of custody for failing to co-parent with their abuser. The family courts claim to operate in the best interests of the child, but how does forcing contact with dangerous, violent men against the mother’s warnings serve those interests?

A Tool of Control and Silencing

Indeed, much like the witch trials, the UK family courts are an instrument of control against any woman who dares to speak up or step out of line. Challenging a man’s authority over the family unit, even an abusive man, flies in the face of patriarchal norms. The full force of the courts is leveraged to put women back in their place and grind them into silence and obedience.

UK family law was supposed to have moved on from archaic patriarchal standards, yet the system’s treatment of women who allege abuse shows it is stuck in the dark ages. Until substantial reforms are enacted, can we really say witch trials have been relegated to history? While accused witches are no longer literally burned at the stake, their modern day daughters are being symbolically torched in courts by officials stuck in misogynistic thinking.

The Need for Reform

Meaningful reform is urgently needed. There must be a critical look at inherent misogynistic biases among court officials, with more women appointed to prominent roles. Investigative and accountability procedures must be strengthened to fully examine abuse allegations, with child safety the top priority. Additionally, more robust community supports are required for women escaping violence, including expanded legal aid, facilitated connections with women’s aid groups, and specialized domestic violence courts. We must show zero tolerance for misogyny and make decisions based on facts, not entrenched bias.

The injustice perpetuated by UK family courts must end. As a society, we owe it to the courageous women speaking their truths to finally start believing them and put an end to these modern day witch trials.

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