Thursday 11th February 2016 has been a bad day for victims of domestic abuse. In brief two changes were imposed by the Government which will demonstrate how difficult it is for such people to recover well. It was the day when the ONS figures for the financial year ending 2015 reported that some 1.9 million people may have suffered from domestic abuse during the year.
Family lawyers such as me were quite encouraged by section 76 of the Serious Crimes Act which came into force on 29th December. This makes financial or other coercion into an offence, which means a crime. So the police will find it easier to investigate and deal with, preferably by forwarding to the Crown Prosecution Service, incidents which seem to fit the criteria. Most such cases will be tried in the local magistrate court. There is often expert witness evidence, from doctors, counsellors and others, of the impact of such abuse by coercion or otherwise on the family. In addition, in private law a conviction for domestic abuse or other evidence can provide reliable evidence to put before a court when considering occupation of the home, arrangements for children and other protection.
I was hopeful after the announcement of increased government interest in mental health. I was encouraged to see the Centre for Social Justice report this week that Iain Duncan Smith would use the Social Justice Cabinet Committee to ensure the Family test is applied across Government. His speech to Relate on 10th February 2016 referred to David Cameron’s promise of the Family Test, explained by the Prime Minister in August 2014 as meaning : “Put simply that means that every single domestic policy that the government comes up with will be examined for its impact on the family”.
So I wonder what went wrong when the two changes of 11th February were considered. To a family solicitor, there is a very real danger of adverse impacts on families.
Junior doctors’ contracts
The most widely publicised will be the imposition by the Health Secretary on the BMA of a contract that doctors says is unsafe for patients. The doctors say it was never about the money, but it was about the care they want to provide and it being safe for them to work like they do, but will not be able to do in future. It seems almost inevitable that many of those who train very expensively in our medical schools and as F1 and F2 in hospitals will not go on to work within the NHS. The expense is not just to the doctors. It is a huge expense to the State to train such specialists. The cost of training to the stage where he/she is sufficiently qualified to work outside the NHS was estimated in 2014 (in a response to Parliament) as £485,390 for a GP and £726,551 for a consultant.
So the outcome will be that it is harder to get medical help. Not just in hospital, but from your GP, and from the mental health care professionals whose knowledge and expertise is often critical to help people, adult and child alike, to come to terms with and hopefully eventually recover from abuse.
Closure of local courts
The second change is one that family lawyers are more likely to think matters too. It is the decision to close 86 local courts, over the next 18 months. Magistrates’ courts, which are usually the place where domestic abuse is first considered by the State, have long been a local venue, with local judges assisted by local people and local lawyers. Many such courts are located in court centres and for family law, we have had a unified court system for nearly 2 years. But when the Government closes these courts there will be real problems for the sufferers of domestic abuse.
It is not difficult to see why. With fewer local courts, there are real problems for those most in need of legal help in getting to a court, perhaps an hour’s journey or more away, on public transport, during a working day. Taking the children out of school as there is no one who can look after them with a parent who may be away for hours is very disruptive. Who looks after them when mum or dad is in court?
But to get the legal advice to protect themselves, such clients need to see a lawyer. With economic pressures on high street law firms following the withdrawal of legal aid for most family law work (it is available, in limited circumstances, for work in connection with domestic abuse but not for any divorce or financial work that is also often needed), many firms have either gone into mergers with other firms, or have ceased to practice. To get the volume of work needed to cover their costs, law firms need to work near where the courts are. So there is always a concentration of law firms near the courts, which makes sense for the law firm even if not for their clients.
I hope for an increase in two approaches to family breakdown:
- The increased use of mediation, where safe, to reach private agreements about what is to happen following separation. That is not always possible, but if it is in fact mutual that the separation is inevitable, before someone reaches “boiling point”, people should be able to access it easily. Legal aid is available for mediation, if the client qualifies.
- The increased use of properly funded programmes for parents in hotly contested dispute. Again, this is not for everyone but it is really effective when it works. I am a trustee at the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships (tccr.org.uk) and have recently been on the advisory board for a programme, government funded, with Cafcass for parents who exhibited real hostility to each other, sometimes physical and often verbal, but who did want to sort out a better way for their children. These parents were diverted from the court system into TCCR. Therapeutic intervention meant that these adults could understand the triggers for their aggression, and could think more about what the other parent and the children would need from them to make the children’s lives better. Again, safety is an issue from the outset.
Both of my suggestions require careful screening, and won’t suit everyone. But there are some glimmers of better ways forward on what is a dark day for victims of relationship breakdown where, for some, medical and legal help has just been knocked sideways.
Hunters incorporating May, May & Merrimans
These views are my own.