Experts in family justice and violence against women urge action and accountability for the Family Court’s failure to protect victims of domestic abuse

One year ago, on the 25th of June 2020, the Harm Panel Report concluded that victims of domestic abuse and their children are being placed at risk of further harm by the family court.

One year on and there have still been no changes to the way the courts carry out their work.

Over 40 experts in family justice and violence against women and girls (VAWG) are signatories to a letter to the Ministry of Justice calling for immediate action and accountability.

Frontline women’s rights charity, Rights of Women, have published a letter calling for urgent action and accountability following the Family Court’s failure to introduce feasible measures which are vital for the safety and security of domestic abuse and child sexual abuse survivors.

These measures are the simplest recommendations from the Harm Report, while root and branch reform is being considered by the Ministry of Justice but none of which have been implemented.

Despite the evidence and urgency of the need for reform of the family courts being accepted, thousands of families continue to face the same issues identified in the Harm Panel Report. From July 2020 to April 2021 (the most recent date for which statistics are available) there have been more than 39,682 new cases referred to Cafcass including over 42,210 children.

Over 40 experts in family justice and violence against women and girls (VAWG) have signed on to Rights of Women’s letter to The Ministry of Justice, The Family Justice Council, The President of the Family Division, and The Family Procedure Rules Committee.

The letter calls for the immediate adoption of six “asks” to protect women and children in the family courts in England and Wales.

Two women spoke to Rights of Women of their experiences in the family courts since the Harm Panel’s publication (July 2020 – present):

“We’ve been in family court for 3 and a half years. Nothing has changed over that period, in fact I feel it has got worse. Recently I had a hearing on Microsoft Teams and no special measures could be arranged, despite there being a restraining order in place and the court knowing it. This made the hearing awful as he snarled at me throughout.”

“At the last hearing, I didn’t feel safe at all. We couldn’t see each other but the judge allowed my ex to verbally abuse me over Zoom.”

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

“The women we support on our family law advice line tell us nothing is changing – the minimisation of abuse and pro-contact culture that is causing so much harm is still alive and well. The Harm Panel Report should have been a wake-up call for the system and the professionals within it must reflect on how the system re-traumatises and further abuses women and children. The basic and immediately actionable measures we are asking for should already be the norm and further delay in introducing them is a betrayal of thousands of adult and child victims of abuse.”

You can read the letter here.

You can read the Statement of Practice here.


This morning the Court of Appeal handed down judgment in what could have been a landmark case challenging the family court’s attitude to domestic abuse and sexual violence in child contact cases.

The appeals were brought after the family court was heavily criticised following a judgment highlighting a judge’s sexist views about rape and a report published by the Ministry of Justice (the Harm Report) which concluded that there are systemic problems with how family courts deal with domestic abuse and other risks of harm.

The case concerned four joined appeals from mothers who had experienced minimisation and dismissive attitudes to the abuse they had experienced. Three of the four appeals were successful and the court did not determine the issues in the fourth case.

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 the ground-breaking Court of Appeal case. They raised the ways in which the family court is failing to protect victims of domestic abuse and their children due to outdated views of male violence against women, particularly where rape is concerned.

The Court of Appeal has given guidance that old fashioned views about controlling and coercive behaviour are no longer acceptable in the family court and that judgments that fail expressly to consider the relevance of coercive control may be appealable.

However, the Court of Appeal failed to use the opportunity given to address the deeply entrenched pro-contact culture identified in the Harm Report and send a clear message that culture change is necessary to protect women and children from the cycle of abuse that can have life-long and sometimes deadly consequences.

The Court also failed to grapple with the procedural flaws in the way victims of sexual violence are treated in the family court stating this was “beyond the scope of this judgment”. This response leaves victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence to continue to face the same sexist attitudes that have been in place for decades.

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

Male violence against women and children is frequently ignored or minimised by the Family Courts and a culture change is long overdue. The Court of Appeal’s judgment goes some way to highlighting the importance of family law professionals identifying and understanding coercive control. But we are saddened that the Court does not appear to have listened to the resounding message from the Harm Report and the women we support that culture change is needed. The cases the Court heard are clear examples of the minimisation by family judges of male violence against women. As a frontline women’s charity, we hear every day about the failings of the court to protect women and children. The Court of Appeal could have used this rare opportunity to send a clear message about the importance of protecting women and children but instead prioritised concerns about workloads and court time over the safety of women and children.

Despite sexual violence being raised in the appeal cases, and the Court hearing submissions about the importance of procedural fairness in these cases, the Court’s response avoiding responsibility for this issue was completely inadequate.”

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

“Today the Court of Appeal has made clear that family judges must see domestic abuse as part of their core business. We hear daily from survivors who tell us that abusers use the family courts and child contact arrangements as weapons to continue control after they’ve escaped. We welcome the conclusion that family judges must do more to investigate patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour, and examine what harm this has upon a child. The courts must recognise that abuse does not end when a relationship ends.

But we are severely disappointed that the Court of Appeal did not call for an end to the ‘contact at all costs’ approach, which is putting women and children experiencing domestic abuse in danger. From our work with survivors, we disagree that the ‘vast majority of judges and magistrates’ had adequate training and understanding about the harm that domestic abuse causes. We fear this judgment has not recognised the urgent need for wholesale reform to make the family courts safe for survivors. We will continue to fight for a change to the presumption of parental involvement in domestic abuse cases – for good.”

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

“The Court of Appeal’s recognition today that understanding of coercive control and the harms it causes must play more of a role in family courts proceedings is really positive. We are nonetheless extremely disappointed that the ruling declined to tackle the significant problems of victim-blaming rape myths, lack of understanding of the law on sexual consent from Family Courts judges, and the overall minimisation and dismissal of sexual violence and abuse in Family Courts. Through our frontline work at Rape Crisis, we know the significant harm and retraumatisation these attitudes as well as the pro-contact culture in Family Courts can and do cause survivors. With our partners, we will continue to highlight the real and urgent need for culture shift in the Family Courts.”

Sara Kirkpatrick, Welsh Women’s Aid, said:

“This appeal was brought in order to highlight the systemic failings of the family court, the judgment today while reiterating the need for better understanding of coercive control and all forms of domestic abuse which is most welcome. Still sadly falls short of addressing those systemic issues. If our civil justice system is not able to protect adult and child survivors of abuse from further harm then it is sadly not a delivering ‘justice’ merely process.


Judgment available here:

We express deep concern over plans to introduce police officers in pubs, bars and clubs in a bid to tackle violence against women

Against the backdrop of police brutality at the vigil for Sarah Everard, Rights of Women is deeply concerned to read the proposals of the Government’s Crime and Justice Taskforce to deploy both uniformed and plain clothes officers being in pubs, bars and clubs, ostensibly to protect women from violence.

This move represents a further and highly unwelcome expansion of police presence into our everyday lives – despite a sorry history of violence against women at the hands of the police.

Hannah Couchman, Senior Legal Officer at Rights of Women, said:

“The vigil for Sarah Everard is the most recent example of the state’s role in violence against women and girls – it is unconscionable for the Government to suggest that the solution to the harassment and violence women face on a daily basis is to introduce more police. Black and minoritised women already experience intrusive over-policing, and it is all too well known that plain clothes can afford the police cover to abuse their powers. For many women, the police do not represent safety or reassurance – instead, oppression and brutality.

At Rights of Women, we regularly hear from women who have been let down and re-traumatised by their contact with the police and the wider criminal justice system. Rather than extending the power and presence of the police – as we are seeing here and under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – the Government needs to devote resources to empowering survivors to access justice and safety, and to addressing the structural inequalities that lie at the heart of endemic violence against women and girls.

For decades, frontline organisations supporting women who have experienced violence have been subject to deeply damaging underfunding – particularly those services run by and for Black and minoritised communities. The call from the women’s sector is not for the gimmicks we have seen proposed by the taskforce, and it certainly isn’t for more police – the solutions are far more complex and they start with listening to the needs of survivors”.



  • The proposals for the Government’s Criminal Justice task force were announced on 15th March 2021, details of which can be found here:


Against the backdrop of police brutality at the vigil for Sarah Everard, today sees second reading of the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

This Bill contains a raft of oppressive powers which crack down on our right to protest, bundled together with draconian criminal justice ‘reforms’. The Bill is a further dangerous extension to police powers that exemplifies the rolling back of our human rights and ignores a history of violence against women at the hands of the police.

When it comes to addressing the needs of survivors of VAWG, this proposed legislation offers “ineffective technological and punitive measures dressed up as cure-all solutions”. The Government’s proposals, set out in the Bill, ignore calls from the sector for real change to the systems that perpetuate VAWG, and do nothing to address decades of underfunding for the VAWG sector, and particularly organisations run by and for Black and minoritised women.

Frontline women’s rights charity, Rights of Women, is calling for an approach to criminal justice that empowers survivors and protects their ability to express their dissent.

Hannah Couchman, Senior Legal Officer at Rights of Women, said:

“Far from reforming our broken justice system and supporting survivors of violence against women and girls (VAWG), this Bill entrenches a reliance on powerful institutions with histories of discriminatory approaches and weak accountability mechanisms and does nothing to address the underlying causes of offending – all while threatening our ability to express dissent about the state’s complicity in VAWG by fundamentally undermining their right to protest.

The introduction of polygraph or ‘lie detector’ testing for those convicted of domestic abuse demonstrates the Government’s failure to address this deep-rooted problem. At best it is a deflection from the lack of investment in improving the justice system for victims and survivors – at worst, it risks further embedding highly controversial technology in our justice system. We seek explanations as to why these proposals have been put forward at the expense of proven and established measures to support the real needs of survivors in relation to safety, justice and accountability.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill offers ineffective technological and punitive measures dressed up as cure-all solutions – measures which will not remedy decades of under-funding for the VAWG sector which has particularly undermined the essential work done by organisations run by and for Black and minoritised women.

Violence against women is endemic in our state and society, and further enabled by systemic racism. This month, the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) Bill passed into law, providing state agents with a lawful basis to undertake the most serious forms of violence, including sexual violence, without fear of prosecution – and the Home Office is once again attempting to extend police powers and encroach on our basic human rights.

The Government should not rush through legislation which exacerbates inequality and contains only tokenistic gestures for addressing the real issues. In a society where women are disbelieved and shamed within a criminal justice system which is supposed to protect them, we demand better – an approach to VAWG built on a rigorous evidence base which centres and empowers survivors.”


  • The Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill is a Government Bill introduced to Parliament on Tuesday 9 March 2021.
  • The Bill’s second reading is scheduled for Monday 15 March – Tuesday 16 March 2021.
  • A copy of the Bill and other Bill documents can be accessed at:

Our statement condemning police brutality at the vigil for Sarah Everard

We are appalled by the scenes of police brutality at last night’s Clapham Vigil to remember Sarah Everard.

It is sickening and disturbing to see this use of force against women gathering in solidarity to peacefully mourn and oppose male violence against women.

We echo Reclaim These Streets in condemning the Metropolitan Police for failing to work with them to ensure a safe vigil and instead choosing to put women’s lives at risk.

We extend our support and solidarity to Sisters Uncut who have spoken out against the intimidation and violence used by the police.

The statement from the Metropolitan Police about their policing of the vigil is deeply disappointing and fails to acknowledge or take any responsibility for their heavy-handed approach.

We stand with all those demanding accountability for the failed senior leadership decision-making and actions of officers at the vigil.

We will not be silenced.

Our Statement on the death of Sarah Everard

We, at Rights of Women, extend our deepest condolences to the family of Sarah Everard following the devastating news today that her death has been confirmed. We cannot imagine the pain of her loss to those who loved her and we are heartbroken by the news.

We are mindful of the history of institutional failures that have denied victims, and their families, justice. It is critical that the current investigation meets the highest standards of accountability, to deliver justice for Sarah and the full truth for her family. This is of critical importance as the investigation has involved the arrest of a serving police officer. We, alongside countless others, will be keeping a watchful eye on developments to ensure Sarah’s grieving family can have faith in the process.

Male violence against women and girls is an endemic crisis. Whilst there is a stronger media and public focus on its prevalence surrounding International Women’s Day, it is prevalent all year round. We stand in solidarity with all the women who have, and continue, to participate in the outpouring of their personal experiences of abuse and living with the continual threat of harassment and violence from men. We join our voice with yours and share your demands for equality, safety and justice.

It is intolerable that in 2021 we as women are still forced to adapt our lives to try and ensure our safety, and that this is seen by many as an acceptable solution to male violence. There must be an end to the culture of victim-blaming – when the victim is blamed for the actions of the perpetrator – it is reprehensible and has no place in a society built on fairness and equality. It is the responsibility of government, and of all our society, to hear the voices of women, take action to address these injustices and challenge the culture that puts us at risk in the first place.

#ChooseToChallenge domestic abuse by donating to our fundraiser

On International Women’s Day we launched a Crowd Justice fundraiser to raise money to help women secure safety from domestic abuse during the pandemic.

The domestic abuse crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has made women increasingly vulnerable to violence and abuse as perpetrators can close the curtains on potential onlookers in the outside world and shut the door on life-saving support for their victims.

We have heard from many women experiencing domestic abuse whose abusers have taken advantage of social-distancing measures so the abuse can go unnoticed and the abuser can evade justice. For many of these women, our services are a lifeline.

“I feel confident now that I can survive and be safe with my children, and I am so, so happy!”

RoW service-user

It is estimated that at least 40% of all women survivors will need legal advice, and we are the only frontline women’s legal rights charity in England and Wales who can offer them this support.

It is not surprising, therefore, that we saw a 200% surge for online support at the start of the pandemic and a constant increase for our helplines since the first lockdown.

Domestic abuse is an epidemic in England and Wales, and the pandemic has enabled it to reach tipping point. Now, more than ever, we need your support to help meet the demand for our services and provide a lifeline for survivors.

How you can help

Please make a donation (any amount helps!) and share our fundraising page with friends and family via social media, WhatsApp and email:

We have been overwhelmed by the support we’ve received since launching our fundraiser. On behalf of the women this will help: thank you, please keep giving and sharing, it all makes a difference.

Finding hope that the law can protect women: my experience as a volunteer at Rights of Women

By Isabella Taylor

I think the law can sometimes feel so full of long words and wigs that it seems very far away from a system that was built to protect everyday people. As a first-year law student, I must confess that the intimidating vastness of it all can feel overwhelming at times. However, when I started volunteering with Rights of Women, I began to see how in the right hands, law is an enormous protection. Volunteering with Rights of Women has demonstrated to me that the value of educating women, myself included, how to utilise the law cannot be overstated.

I think the law can sometimes feel so full of long words and wigs that it seems very far away from a system that was built to protect everyday people.

I have had the pleasure of volunteering with Rights of Women (RoW) in a role that was once Office Volunteer, and has since become Home Volunteer following March 2020. I have helped them in supporting the FLOWS Forum (Finding Legal Options for Women Survivors), as well as doing some work for their Immigration team. One of the most exciting things about my role is the access it has given me to talk and hear from so many different people working in the Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) sector. Working on FLOWS has enabled me to attend events on legal aid and coercive control that have given me so much insight into the incredible work all the organisations, academics and lawyers in this field do.

There is something so hopeful about being surrounded by women who are fighting to show that the law can and should protect women.

It has been incredibly valuable for me to see that this work exists, and all that is being done to make it achievable for as many women as possible to seek justice. There is a recognition at RoW that every part of the process for women experiencing violence, from initially seeking help to eventually getting justice, is just as important. Through my volunteer work reaching out to VAWG organisations to encourage them to get involved with FLOWS, I have witnessed this first-hand. The opportunity to be exposed to this sort of work at the age of 21 has been incredibly rewarding, there is something so hopeful about being surrounded by women who are fighting to show that the law can and should protect women. The policy work that RoW does means they not only enable more women to access the law through their advice lines, but also ensures that the law that is being accessed has the necessary protections in place to be effective. I have been made to feel so welcome and truly included ever since I started volunteering for Rights of Women, and have been given the opportunity to learn invaluable lessons that I will carry beyond my role here into my everyday life, thanks to the access I have been given and the openness and authenticity of the women working at RoW.

Victory for survivors of domestic abuse as legal aid win comes into force

From today, victims and survivors of domestic abuse who were previously denied access to legal aid will no longer be asked to sell their homes to access safety from abuse and justice.

Due to the unrealistic rules relating to legal aid eligibility, women who were unable to afford legal representation were forced to face their abusers alone, in court.

The legislation, which comes into effect today (28 January 2021), removes the cap on mortgage allowance when assessing someone’s financial eligibility. This means that ‘imaginary capital’ will now be assessed properly: as debt.

The legislation comes into force following a High Court ruling, in December last year, which closed a legal loophole in the rules about ‘trapped capital’ that prevented a survivor of domestic abuse, a single mother who had just £28 in her bank at the time, access to legal aid.

Women’s rights charity, Rights of Women, frequently receive calls to their ‘family law advice line’ from victims and survivors of domestic abuse who have been denied access to legal aid despite having no money to afford representation in court.

One of Rights of Women’s callers, Maria*, a single mother who fled her abusive husband and was living on universal credit, was denied legal aid and told to sell her home to pay for legal advice to keep herself and her children safe. Unable to sell her home, which would have left herself and her children homeless, Maria had no choice but to represent herself in court. 

Speaking of her ordeal, Maria* said:

“It was very stressful. I was caring for my children and trying to go here and there and managing all these papers. I don’t know what my rights are. I can only tell the judge what I know but I don’t know when to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no’. When the case started, my partner got an order and I didn’t know how he did that and I didn’t have a lawyer to find out. The court removed the order, but I don’t think it would have started like that if I had a lawyer. When both people know what to do it is fair but when he knew what he was doing and I didn’t, it felt like they could squeeze me and I just had to say ‘yes’. You feel you can’t speak up.”

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

“We frequently speak to women experiencing domestic abuse, some who have had to resort to food banks to feed their children, who have been denied access to legal aid by a system deliberately designed to make it harder for applicants to be granted legal aid, a system which ignores the lived realities of many women experiencing domestic abuse. You should not have to sell your home, and make yourself and your children homeless, to be eligible to access justice and safety. This vital legislation will help many more women access the legal support and protections they desperately need to live free from violence and abuse.”

*Case study and quote is shared with the consent of the survivor, and names have been altered to prevent identification.

For more information see our updated legal guidance, available here.

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.”


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