Family court hearings are being pushed back until Spring 2023 as the court system falters under the weight of the backlogs. Covid has been a driving force – but the judicial process has been fraught with delays long before the pandemic. Any court appearance is sensitive but the emotional nature of the family courts adds stress to an already challenging experience.
On Tuesday, Dominic Raab acknowledged the backlogs in the system, as a set of “super courtroom” were announced to try and break the systemic delays. But the National Audit Office has warned the plans, while ambitious, require both funding and resources. Mr Raab, as Justice Secretary, was unable “with precision” to say how long it will take for his plans to bear fruit.
For victims of abusive relationships, these delays can be intolerable. Many couples petitioning for a divorce have little option but to continue to live together in the family home while they await a judgement that will decide their financial future.
We tend to think of an abusive relationship as a violent one, but many spouses are victims of coercive control, a form of emotional abuse which can be equally as traumatic, but often more difficult to prosecute in the criminal court. It can mean isolating a person from their friends and family, monitoring online communication, scrutinising how much money someone spends, and constantly belittling and criticising them.
In the Family Courts, the burden of proof is thankfully lower meaning lawyers can help protect clients who are being abused. Before the pandemic, to put a distance between the two parties, the victim and their legal representation could physically go to the court, queue up to see an emergency judge in order to be granted court-ordered protection in the form of a non-molestation order, occupation order – or both.
Now, you can only enter the court if you have a hearing. Emergency applications must be emailed to the court – and they can take weeks. The risk domestic abuse victims run is greater every day they are forced to wait for a hearing.
There are backlogs in the system but there has also been a spike in domestic abuse cases. As restrictions eased, there was a 65 per cent increase in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline in April – June 2020.
Once you do manage to secure a hearing, these are often done virtually or in some cases over the phone – even for those involving serious abuse allegations. Parties can be cross-examined over the phone, where a judge can’t see someone’s body language or demeanour and understand the full impact of the abuse.
Unsurprisingly, the parties involved often leave with a feeling of injustice after long delays and then a rush of proceedings. If justice is built on finding resolution, it is failing to hit the mark. The distress of the process has prevented the sense of closure – of protection – victims deserve. In the short term, this hurts individuals. The long-term ramifications will undermine our trust in the courts.
Solving this will require a many-pronged approach, with investment into the courts to make them fully operational, investment into education to help victims understand what abuse is and how they can be protected, programs to develop awareness of financial, psychological and emotional abuse, to list but a few.
We as solicitors will continue to do everything in our power to protect our clients from dangerous relationships. But our work won’t solve it in isolation.