Voices of children overlooked in family courts, says ex-head

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Media captionOne mother describes how her abusive ex-partner was granted unsupervised access to their children by the family courts

Family courts in England and Wales are not properly accommodating children's voices and needs because the government has suggested "it would all cost too much", their former head has said.

Sir James Munby added the courts are "shamefully" behind in victim support.

At least four children have been killed in the last five years by a parent with a known history of violence, after a family court granted access.

The Ministry of Justice said a child's welfare was always the priority.

'True scale unknown'

Sir James's comments come as more than 120 MPs wrote to the government asking for an inquiry into how family courts in England and Wales treat victims of domestic violence.

And dozens of parents have told the Victoria Derbyshire programme that their abusive ex-partners were granted unsupervised contact with their child.

Sir James, who was president of the Family Division of the High Court from 2013 to 2018, said it would be "very foolish" to ignore such findings.

"The only way we are going to get to the bottom of this once and for all is if there is a detailed independent analysis by reputable academic researchers," he said.

"It would be vital that the research be published, whatever the conclusions."

Asked if the courts - which can place restrictions on what information is published to protect the identities of children - needed to be more transparent, he said: "Many more judgements are now being published than previously but... nothing like as many as I would think appropriate".

Image caption Sir James Munby said that because of legal aid cuts the family courts had effectively become a "lawyer-free zone"

He also raised concerns over how those attending courts were treated.

He said the system was failing to accommodate the voices of children "well enough" - including in cases where they wished "to see the court, give evidence or meet the judge".

Sir James added that "detailed proposals" to improve this had been worked up, "but nothing can come into effect without the approval of the minister".

He said he was told approval had not been given because, "in plain English, it would all cost too much".


Sir James also revealed that cuts to legal aid - and the increased number of people representing themselves in court - had effectively led to the family courts becoming a "lawyer-free zone", risking the "quality of decisions and prejudicing cases".

And he said it was "scandalous" that in the family courts - unlike in other areas of the justice system - alleged perpetrators could still cross-examine alleged, potentially vulnerable victims.

The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service said that its social workers "help the courts to understand the impact of domestic abuse on the child by listening to their wishes and feelings and using our resources to understand their individual experience of the abuse".

The Ministry of Justice said it continued to look to improve how the justice system dealt with domestic abuse.

It said this included making it easier "to access legal aid for victims, separate waiting areas for vulnerable court users, and action to ban abusers from cross-examining their victims".

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