Reform family courts to tackle violence against women, charities urge next government

The new government must put family court reform on the agenda if it hopes to tackle violence against women and girls, charities supporting survivors have warned.

Labour, which is currently leading in the polls, has pledged to halve the level of violence against women and girls within a decade should it win the election. Yet the reforms laid out in the party’s manifesto focus solely on the criminal justice system.

Meanwhile, family law reforms are mentioned only once each in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos.

Olive Craig, senior lawyer at the legal-advice charity Rights of Women, said the manifestos do not reflect the harm that poor decisions in the family courts can have on the victims of domestic abuse.

“Most women experiencing domestic abuse do not report it to the police but seek protection from the family courts or are taken to court by abusers seeking contact with their children,” she told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ).

“Policies aimed at reducing violence against women and girls must include reform of the family courts.”

Ciara Bergman, CEO of the charity Rape Crisis, said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the initiatives laid out by Labour, including plans for specialist rape teams in every police force and the introduction of rape courts at every crown court location in England and Wales to fast-track cases.

But she told TBIJ it was vital that any party serious about tackling male violence must recognise the “pivotal role” of the family courts in protecting women.

“Every year, thousands of women approach the family courts for help with child contact arrangements, often in the aftermath of domestic abuse – including in many cases rape and sexual abuse,” she explained.

“For many of those women, this will be the first time they decide to report these experiences - where either the criminal justice system has let them down or the prospect of a rape trial is too traumatic for them to consider - yet many still seek protection for their children.”

The prevalence of domestic violence as an issue within the family courts is shown by the fact that there were nearly 31,000 non-molestation applications issued by the family courts in England and Wales in the year ending March 2023. (As a point of comparison, there were around 51,000 prosecutions related to domestic abuse over the same period.)

‘Beyond capacity’

Earlier this month the head of the Metropolitan police, Sir Mark Rowley, described the scale of violent crime committed by men against women as “eye-watering”.

In a report for the London policing board, he said there are up to four million perpetrators of violence against women and girls in England and Wales and that the problem is “beyond policing and justice system capacity”.

Official data shows that about 1.5 million domestic abuse-related incidents and crimes are reported to police in England and Wales annually.

Many survivors of domestic violence separating from their abuser will go through family court proceedings to access protection orders, to make arrangements about child contact or for divorce proceedings.

Yet Lucy Hadley, head of policy at Women’s Aid, claims the family courts are not safe for women and children experiencing domestic abuse – the number-one concern survivors raise with the organisation.

“Domestic abuse continues to be minimised, ignored and undermined in the family court system […] Far too often we see that the focus for policy around violence against women and girls is on the criminal justice response alone,” she said.

“Women tell us that judges, magistrates and family court professionals do not understand domestic abuse - particularly coercive and controlling behaviour - and its impact on children, and how perpetrators use the family courts to continue abuse post separation.”

In June 2020, a landmark government review, the Harm Report, concluded that the family courts placed victims of domestic abuse and their children at risk through unsafe contact orders.

The report identified a “pro-contact culture” arising, at least in part, due to a law that says it is in a child’s best interests to have a relationship with both parents.

The report found the courts place undue priority on parental involvement in a child’s life, resulting in the systemic minimisation and disbelief of allegations of domestic abuse and child sex abuse.

In November 2020, the Ministry of Justice launched an urgent review of the “presumption of parental involvement”. Four years on, its findings have yet to be published.

Women’s charities are calling on the next government to implement the outstanding recommendations of the Harm Report and address “urgent concerns” around allegations of parental alienation and unregulated experts in the family court - issues being investigated as part of TBIJ’s Family Court Files series.

Hadley said: “The family courts are appointing people who call themselves ‘psychologists’ to assess adults and children but who are not qualified to provide such assessments, leading to dangerous child-contact arrangements with those that allege so-called ‘parental alienation’ as a way to minimise or counter allegations of domestic abuse.”

Earlier this month in Ireland, it was announced that the concept of parental alienation would no longer be allowed to influence family court proceedings.

The issue of parental alienation experts was considered by the president of the family division of England and Wales during a 2023 appeal.

Sir Andrew McFarlane endorsed the view that parental alienation is not a condition that can be diagnosed by a psychologist but is instead a series of behaviours to be determined by the court. He said regulation of the term “psychologist” was a matter for parliament.

There were more than 78,000 children involved in private family law cases – those which do not involve a local authority – in England and Wales in 2023. Estimates indicate that the prevalence of domestic abuse in these cases ranges from 49% to 62%.

In its manifesto, the Conservative party has committed to expanding a pilot of specialist domestic abuse courts and pledged to continue mediation vouchers, a financial contribution to support families disputes without going to court.

The Liberal Democrats announced plans to tackle the backlog in the family court system by making the legal aid system “simpler, fairer and more generous”.

A Labour party spokesperson told TBIJ: “After 14 years of neglect, the family courts are overwhelmed. Should we form the next government, Labour will restore our family courts so they better protect domestic abuse victims.

“The profound challenges in family courts sit within the wider crisis in our justice system. On this government’s watch we have huge backlogs in the courts and prison estate on the edge of collapse.

They added: “Labour is committed to working with the sector and victims’ groups to address the crisis in our family courts, and to review progress against the Harm Report as part of our mission to tackle violence against women and girls.”

The Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats did not respond to requests for comment.

Violence against women and girls: key lines from the party manifestos

(Family court pledges in italics)


  • We will introduce a 25-year prison term for domestic murders, regardless of whether a weapon is used. Those who kill their domestic abusers will not face the same starting point.

  • We will ensure rape victims get the justice and support they deserve with a new investigatory model for rape for police forces and prosecutors.

  • We will require rapists and other serious sexual offenders to spend the whole of their sentences behind bars

  • We will expand our Pathfinder Courts pilot in family court proceedings and continue mediation vouchers to help more families resolve private law child arrangements without an acrimonious court battle.


  • With Labour, there will be specialist rape and sexual offences teams in every police force.

  • Labour will fast-track rape cases, with specialist courts at every Crown Court location in England and Wales.

  • Labour will strengthen the use of Stalking Protection Orders and give women the right to know the identity of online stalkers.

  • Labour will introduce a new criminal offence for spiking to help police better respond to this crime.

Liberal Democrats

  • Ensuring survivors of violence against women and girls are properly
    supported, included through mandatory training for police and prosecutors in understanding the impact of trauma on survivors.

  • Embedding domestic abuse specialists in every police force and 999 operator assistance centre to ensure that reports from survivors are handled effectively and sensitively.

  • We will tackle the backlogs in the family courts that leave children and families waiting nearly a year for cases to be resolved, by making the legal aid system simpler, fairer and more generous.

  • Expanding the number of refuges and rape crisis centres to meet demand.