UK Family Court Professionals’ Inadequate Understanding of Domestic Abuse


Family court professionals such as judges, barristers, and social workers play a crucial role in child custody decisions when domestic abuse is alleged. However, many within the family court system lack a sufficient understanding of coercive control and other forms of non-physical abuse. This can have devastating consequences for survivors and their children. By raising awareness of these issues among professionals, we can help create a family court system with the knowledge and skills needed to properly assess allegations of abuse.

Defining Coercive Control

One of the most concerning gaps in understanding relates to the concept of coercive control. While physical violence garners obvious concern, coercive control involves more subtle means of abuse through threats, humiliation, isolation and intimidation used to harm, punish or frighten victims. Coercive control aims to deprive victims of their liberty through micromanipulating their everyday behaviours. However, this type of psychological abuse remains poorly recognized within the family courts. Many professionals continue to expect visible physical injuries as ‘proof’ of abuse despite coercive control often leaving no marks. This leaves survivors struggling to ‘prove’ the insidious harms they have experienced.

Assessing Risks of Harm

Evaluating risk is another area where improved training is required. Risk assessment tools commonly used by social services tend to focus heavily on established risk factors like prior violence or criminal history. While important, this overlooks how risks may evolve over time, such as an abuser becoming increasingly controlling following a separation. Professionals need training on dynamic, evidence-based risk assessment which examines changing life circumstances and understandable reasons why survivors may recant or minimize past abuse disclosures. Without a sophisticated understanding of risk, the system cannot hope to make proportionate decisions to safeguard victims and children.

Responding to Disclosures of Historic Abuse

Another concern relates to how professionals respond to disclosures of past non-recent abuse, such as sexual abuse from childhood. There remains an out-dated assumption by some that such allegations made in the context of custody cases are less credible, yet the impacts of past trauma on parenting capacity and children’s wellbeing cannot be ignored. All disclosures of abuse should be properly investigated with appropriate therapeutic and social support provided regardless of when the abuse took place. Specialist training on the impacts and disclosure patterns of sexual and emotional abuse throughout the lifespan is clearly needed within the family courts.

Tackling Harmful Myths and Stereotypes

A deeper understanding must also tackle pervasive myths which undermine abuse allegations. For instance, the misconception that ‘true victims’ would never stay with an abuser or immediately report harm needs challenging, as the complex emotional processes involved in abusive relationships are not well understood. Professionals require ongoing training to identify and overcome their own unconscious biases which could render some survivors’ experiences ‘invisible’ due to diverging from false assumptions. Tackling problematic attitudes and implicit biases will help foster a family justice system with a robust appreciation of domestic abuse in all its forms.

Lives Can Be Saved, But Urgent Change is Required

While progress has been made, it is clear British family court professionals still have room for growth in comprehending domestic abuse, power dynamics and trauma-informed practice. With targeted training addressing issues like coercive control, risk assessment, impacts of past harms and harmful misconceptions – the system can, if we demand it, develop increased competence and confidence in differentiating true safeguarding concerns from false allegations. Most importantly, this increased awareness can start saving lives by enabling proportionate decisions which allocate care and contact arrangements based on the best interests of vulnerable victims and children, rather than unchecked biases or narrow definitions of interpersonal violence. Prioritising professional education represents an urgent but achievable step towards a fairer and more sensitive family court system.

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