Archive for January, 2021

Court of Appeal considers Family Court’s approach to domestic abuse in child contact cases

Important review case comes in the wake of controversy over successful appeal case that highlighted outdated and sexist views of a judge on rape in an intimate relationship.

The Court of Appeal will be asked to give guidance on how the Family Court should protect victims of abuse and their children in cases where there are allegations of controlling and coercive behaviour and sexual violence.

A group of leading women’s rights organisations (Rights of Women, Women’s Aid, Welsh Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis England and Wales) intervened in ground-breaking Court of Appeal case. They will raise the ways in which the Family Court is failing to protect victims of domestic abuse and their children due to the outdated views of judges, particularly where rape is concerned.

From 19th-21st January, the Court of Appeal will hear four joined cases where women are seeking to overturn decisions made in child contact hearings. The cases all raise issues about the way the court responds to allegations of controlling and coercive behaviour and rape.

This is the first time in 20 years the Court of Appeal has been asked to give general guidance on the approach to domestic abuse in child contact cases since the landmark case of Re L, V, M, H (Contact: Domestic Violence) in 2001 in which the Court set out guidelines for how such cases should be treated. That case led to important changes to the rules about how domestic abuse is treated in child contact cases in the form of Practice Direction 12J (PD12J). It is now accepted that controlling and coercive behaviour is extremely harmful and can have life-long impacts on the women and children that experience it including, in the worst cases, leading to their murder.

PD12J sets out what the family court is required to do in any case where there is alleged or admitted domestic abuse to ensure a safe and supportive response for victims, including children. The cases within this appeal highlight various failures in the court’s implementation of PD12J.

The cases are being brought after the court was heavily criticised in January 2020 for relying on offensive views about sexual consent and the Government’s Harm Report was published in June 2020. The Harm Report concluded that there are systemic problems with how family courts deal with domestic abuse and other risks of harm.

Olive Craig, Senior Legal Officer at Rights of Women said, today:

“Women’s experiences of domestic abuse are frequently ignored by the Family Courts and a culture change is long overdue. The evidence about the harm domestic abuse causes to victims and children is clear but at present the Family Court is failing to safeguard children by taking a pro-contact approach instead of focusing on the child’s welfare as the law requires. Women and children are being denied the protection they need as a result. This case is an opportunity to make clear to the Family Court that domestic abuse must be taken seriously and women and children must be protected from this harmful behaviour.”

Lucy Hadley, Head of Campaigns & Policy at Women’s Aid Federation of England, said:

“Survivors contact Women’s Aid on a daily basis to tell us about their concerns with the family courts and safe child contact arrangements. Far too often they report that the courts still take a ‘contact at all costs’ approach to decisions on child contact with a parent where there are allegations of domestic abuse. This undermines the safety of survivors and their children, ignores the impact of domestic abuse on them and can expose them to further abuse and harm. This landmark case is an opportunity to shine a light on what survivors have been telling us for decades, and the urgent reforms that are required.”

Gwendolyn Sterk, Head of Public Affairs and Communications, Welsh Women’s Aid said:

“Time and again we hear from survivors across Wales about ineffective and traumatic experiences within the family courts and child contact arrangements. Survivors report that the rights of them and their children to live free from abuse are not prioritized. It is vital that the failures to recognize or take seriously the abuse women and children are experiencing are addressed with urgency. Welsh Women’s Aid is keen to that this case offers an opportunity to change how the family court system responds to domestic abuse, ensuring its focus is on the safety and support of women and children that are experiencing abuse.”

Katie Russell, national spokesperson for Rape Crisis England & Wales said:

“Rape Crisis and its member Centres have long been concerned about the deeply harmful impacts the culture of the Family Courts has on adults and children subjected to sexual violence and abuse. Severely outdated views on rape and consent, betraying fundamental lack of understanding of the law on sexual offences on the part of family judges, plus the prevalence of sexist rape myths, too often retraumatise and lead to decisions that undermine the safety of women and children. This case presents an opportunity for victims’ and survivors’ voices to be heard and Rape Crisis hopes it will lead to the systemic changes needed to uphold their rights and welfare.”

Rights of Women survey reveals online sexual harassment has increased, as women continue to suffer sexual harassment whilst working through the Covid-19 pandemic.

  • Women’s rights charity survey data shows that Covid-19 has seen women experience an upsurge in online sexual harassment whilst working from home, as harassers take advantage of online work platforms and social media during the pandemic.
  • Nearly 1 in 2 women who have experienced sexual harassment at work reported to experience some to all of it online.
  • 15% of women who have experienced sexual harassment at work reported an increase in online harassment whilst working from home during Covid-19.
  • Nearly 1 in 3 women who have reported sexual harassment to their employer said that the process had been negatively impacted by the pandemic.
  • Since announcing a package of commitments to tackle sexual harassment at work last year, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) has yet to respond to their consultation on sexual harassment. Rights of Women are calling on the Government to urgently prioritise making guidance on sexual harassment for employers statutory.

Between 23rd November and 15th December, leading women’s charity, Rights of Women, conducted an online survey to gather information on women’s experiences of sexual harassment at work and working from home through the Covid-19 pandemic.

This inaugural data is the first of its kind in England and Wales and reveals the ways in which women are unsafe and unprotected from sexual harassment at work during Covid-19.

The survey exemplifies how current protections in the Equality Act 2010 are not robust enough to challenge the culture of sexual harassment at work, or whilst working from home, and a mandatory preventative duty for employers is needed to tackle the issue.

Rights of Women is calling on the Government to act by strengthening the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) ‘Sexual harassment at work technical guidance’ and making it statutory for all employers.

Rights of Women also urges the Government to publish its response to its ‘Sexual Harassment in the Workplace’ September 2019 consultation, which was due in spring of this year.

Survey exposes an upsurge in online sexual harassment whilst working from home

  • 45% of women experiencing sexual harassment, reported experiencing the harassment remotely. Remote sexual harassment refers to the following: sexual messages (e.g. email, texts, social media); cyber harassment (e.g. via Zoom, Teams, Slack etc); and sexual calls.
  • 42% of women experiencing sexual harassment at work have experienced some to all of the harassment online.
  • 23% of women who have experienced sexual harassment reported an increase or escalation whilst working from home, since the start of lockdown (23rd March 2020),
  • 15% of women who have experienced sexual harassment reported that some or all of the harassment has moved online whilst working from home, since the start of lockdown (23rd March 2020).
  • One woman highlighted how working from home has enabled her harassers to further invade her privacy: “having to let colleagues into my bedroom (via video meetings) means I feel my privacy has been invaded and nowhere is safe. The men now have more ammunition to mock me with.”
  • One woman spoke of her experience of cyber harassment, via Zoom: “The director of the company uses Zoom to take screenshots of myself and other women which he shares with colleagues making derogatory statements and implying the photos look like we’re doing sexual acts.”
  • One woman spoke of the impact working from home has had on her ability to report sexual harassment: “The fact it’s on Zoom in front of others in a jokey manner makes it difficult to address.”

Survey reveals women’s access to justice and safety from sexual harassment at work has been negatively impacted by the pandemic, as investigations stall

  • 72% of women experiencing sexual harassment at work do not feel their employer is doing enough to protect and/or support them from the harassment and abuse.
  • 29% of women who have reported sexual harassment to their employer reported that the response has been negatively impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • One woman wrote of how working from home impacted their employer’s response and investigation into sexual harassment: “due to restrictions in limiting contact with people, management haven’t wanted to go into the home of the perpetrator to speak with them about the matter because it’s not viewed at necessary and could be risky. It also took a long time to get a meeting arranged because, due to restrictions, only management staff were allowed into the office. It took a long time for them to answer my emails due to Covid so the pandemic had a huge impact on the way the situation was handled.”
  • A key worker at a hospital told us of how the investigation process into sexual harassment was stalled, and she had to continue working with her harasser, due to the pressures of the pandemic: “As the pandemic was declared, all attention was diverted in managing clinical pressures and needs as I work in a hospital. This meant an investigation was not started for months. In the meantime, I felt unprotected as there was no system in place to remove the harasser from the department whilst an investigation was pending. …There is no policy in this mammoth organisation that addresses sexual harassment.”

Deeba Syed, Senior Legal Officer, Rights of Women, said:

“These statistics echo what women have been telling us already, sexual harassment at work happens online as well as in-person. Although more women are working from home, online sexual harassment has increased and women continue to suffer sexual harassment despite the Covid-19 pandemic. Women working from home have seen their harassers take to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, social media, messages, and phone calls, to continue the torrent of abuse.

What is more, women’s health and safety from sexual harassment at work is being undermined and overlooked by their employers. Women have told us that employers are exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic to delay and frustrate the justice processes for women who do come forward to report harassment. In doing so, they continue to neglect their legal responsibility to prevent and protect women from sexual harassment at work.

The survey highlights how the current legal framework for sexual harassment complaints is not-fit-for purpose, as employers continue to undermine their responsibility to keep women safe from sexual harassment and harassers repeatedly evade justice. Until legislation and guidance reflect the lived realities of women, whether working from home or on site, no space is safe from harassment and abuse for women at work.

It has been over a year since the GEO closed their ‘Consultation on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace’ and we are still waiting on the Government’s response and next steps which they pledged to release by spring. Earlier this year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published technical guidance for sexual harassment, and now more than ever this guidance must be is made statutory for all employers to follow as an urgent priority.”

Women’s rights organisations call on Peers to resist dangerous and unfettered powers contained in Covert Human Intelligence Bill

 

The Centre for Women’s Justice, End Violence Against Women, the Faith and VAWG Coalition, FiLiA, the Latin American Women’s Rights Service, Rights of Women, Standing Together and Women’s Aid have released a briefing urging peers to resist the dangerous and unfettered powers outlined in this Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill, which will be debated in the House of Lords today.

The Bill creates law to allow covert human intelligence agents to commit crimes with impunity, with no limitation on the severity of the crime and with all approvals granted internally. Furthermore, it restricts victim survivors of these offences from seeking redress in the criminal or civil courts.

While the Government has cited the Human Rights Act 1998 as protecting us from the abuses that could so easily result for the sweeping powers under this Bill, women’s rights organisations – along with human rights organisations across the sector – point out the Government’s own dangerous assertion that the Human Rights Act does not apply to crimes committed by its covert agents.

The organisations have called for:

  • Limits to the offences which can be authorised under the Bill;
  • The introduction of a robust oversight scheme;
  • Retained routes of redress for victim survivors, through criminal and civil justice processes.

Hannah Couchman, Senior Legal Officer at Rights of Women said:
“This Bill represents an unacceptable threat to our human rights – a threat that is keenly felt by women, who have historically been subject to abuse at the hands of the police and security services under the guise of ‘intelligence gathering’. It is unconscionable for such powers – powers to commit the most appalling crimes imaginable – to be introduced with no limits and no system of independent judicial oversight, while restricting access to justice for victim survivors. Rigorous safeguards are essential if this Bill is to avoid perpetuating the cycle of violence against women and girls.”

Nicki Norman, Acting Chief Executive of Women’s Aid Federation England, said:
“A day before we mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we are severely concerned that this proposed law provides the security services and the police with a lawful basis to commit crimes including rape, sexual violence and torture. Women have bravely spoken out about their appalling experiences of rape, or intimate relationships which were built on deception, during undercover policing operations in recent years. We urge Members of the House of Lords to limit the offences that are permitted during covert operations, and ensure that the state never sanctions violence against women.”

Harriet Wistrich, Founding Director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, said:
“It is extraordinary that this Bill is being rushed through parliament without consultation at a time when the undercover policing inquiry to examine and report on past undercover policing which led to gross violations of human rights including sexual violations without consent which have caused lasting psychological damage. We need to learn from past failures not permit future misconduct of the most serious kind.”

Gisela Vale, Director of the Latin American Women’s Rights Service, said:
“BME migrant women are already one of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in society, with little protection of their fundamental human rights and even less access to justice. They are also members of already over surveilled and over policed communities and this Bill would put them at higher risk of further harm and abuse. Essential amendments need to be included in this Bill to ensure they are afforded basic protections and access to justice.”

The briefing released by the women’s rights organisations can be found here

Bill documents can be found here.

 
 
 
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