As we embark on our second national lockdown, many of us are reflecting on lessons learnt from the first. A key difference this time is that courts are among the public services that will remain open. During the initial Covid-19 response, the challenges for our courts in operating in a covid-safe way resulted in temporary suspensions, curtailments and delays. The impact of this on our family courts is stark: a 13% drop in cases starting, delays in cases proceeding, and a drop in disposals of 30%.
More worryingly, there is a major exception to this general trend - the issue of domestic abuse.
The scale of the problem
One domestic abuse call every 30 seconds in the first seven weeks of lockdown.
Worldwide, domestic abuse - particularly against women and girls - has intensified since the outbreak of Covid-19. The UN described the global increase as a “shadow pandemic” growing alongside the virus. The UK is no exception. In early Spring, when the country was locked down for the first time, domestic abuse charities saw the number of calls to their helplines increase by up to 50%. A joint study by Panorama and Women’s Aid into how the nationwide shutdown impacted victims of domestic abuse described it as dramatically compounding intimate partner violence against women, reporting one domestic abuse call every 30 seconds in the first seven weeks of lockdown. This worrying trend was reflected in Ministry of Justice statistics which reported record levels of domestic violence remedy cases for April to June 2020. The number of urgent care proceedings in the family courts has also risen sharply, with some seeing a fivefold increase since the beginning of the pandemic. While not all are as a result of concerns relating to intimate partner violence, statistics suggest 60% of all care proceeding cases feature allegations of domestic abuse. So, in a situation where the requirement for recurrent national and local lockdowns seems likely, how do we better support families experiencing domestic abuse?
The government purports that it prioritised help in the first national lockdown. In a statement, the Home Office said it had recognised early on the risks of a nationwide lockdown for victims of domestic abuse and focused on ensuring vital support services remained available. The Minister for Safeguarding, Victoria Atkins, explained that: "From our ground-breaking legislation in the Domestic Abuse Bill, to additional financial support and regular engagement with charities throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the government remains resolute in combating this vile crime". However, experts from across the sector are deeply worried about the impact this second national lockdown could have. Indeed, the Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, and the Shadow Minister for Domestic Abuse and Safeguarding, Jess Phillips, have written a joint letter to the Home Secretary, urging her to bring forward a package of support during a second lockdown.
A major overhaul
Yet in many ways, Covid-19 has thrown into sharp focus numerous issues surrounding the protection of people facing domestic abuse that long predate the pandemic. While short-term protections are absolutely necessary, the sad reality is that domestic abuse is a disease that will outlive the coronavirus; therefore, a renewed focus on our treatment of it is required. In recognition, the government has committed to significant national reforms. The long-awaited Domestic Abuse Bill, hailed as as a “landmark” piece of legislation by the government, is due to become law in early 2021. It introduces a welcomed recognition of children affected by domestic abuse as victims in their own right. Moreover, in June 2020, the expert-led Harm Review was published, finding that the adversarial process in the family courts often worsened conflicts between parents and re-traumatised domestic abuse victims and their children. In its response to the report, the government promised a “major overhaul” of the family courts, committing to trialling a new investigative approach to hearing cases - Integrated Domestic Abuse Courts (IDACs). Through a “one family, one judge” model, the IDAC pilot proposes to consider family and criminal matters in parallel, placing an emphasis on using problem-solving approaches to get to the root of an issue and minimise harm. So, what lessons can the IDAC pilot take from the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) model?
Learning from FDACs
Combining holistic, multidisciplinary support for parents with a problem-solving court process, FDACs deliver better outcomes for families and children.
FDACs are an innovative and alternative approach to care proceedings where parental substance misuse (drugs or alcohol) is a key factor in the concerns about parenting. Rooted in a therapeutic and relationship-based model, FDACs use the power of trusting relationships to provide a supportive but challenging atmosphere in which parents can address their substance misuse and improve their parenting. Parents are supported by a multi-disciplinary team who broker, coordinate and provide the support and treatment required by parents, working intensively with them throughout the proceedings. They also meet fortnightly with the same specially-trained judge for an informal court hearing without the lawyers present (known as a non-lawyer review).
Combining holistic, multidisciplinary support for parents with a problem-solving court process, FDACs deliver better outcomes for families and children. In 2014, an evaluation published by Brunel University showed that reunification rates compared favourably with standard cases (45% compared to 15%), parents had better experiences in court and there were far fewer contested cases. In 2016, a further evaluation published by Lancaster University looked at the durability of outcomes over 5 years following engagement with FDAC. It found that FDAC mothers are 50% more likely to stop using drugs and are much more likely to have stayed off drugs five years after going through FDAC than mothers who go through ordinary care proceedings.
A holistic approach
FDAC sites report that between 80-95% of their cases involve parents with recent experience of intimate partner violence. FDAC works because it provides holistic support and collaborative working around the family.
However, one common misconception of the FDAC model is to consider it an approach focused solely on substance misuse. This is far from the case. While concerns regarding the use of drugs and/or alcohol is the prevailing factor in the decision to issue proceedings in all cases referred to FDAC, mental health concerns and domestic abuse feature in the overwhelming majority. FDAC sites report that between 80-95% of their cases involve parents with recent experience of intimate partner violence, and almost all cases feature experience of abuse in previous relationships or childhood. The use of drugs and alcohol is more often than not a coping mechanism in response. Instead of perceiving issues as standalone concerns, the FDAC teams follow a process of dynamic assessment and intervention towards understanding how to support parents experiencing or instigating domestic abuse. Working together in what is known as formulation, the team combines their expertise and specialism to inform their shared insight into the root causes and issues affecting each parent. Following this, the team are then able to determine an intervention plan with parents to address solvable problems and make the sustained behaviour change necessary for their children.
FDAC works because it provides holistic support and collaborative working around the family. One distinct aspect of the model is its whole-family approach to working with domestic abuse. Whether parents are parenting together or separately, each has their own individual key worker and separate non-lawyer reviews with their judge. Safety is of paramount importance and, where necessary, identifying information on court reports is redacted; orders to protect children and victims are made a priority; and timings and appointments both in court and for key work sessions are managed so parents do not come into contact. However, FDAC does not work with only the instigator or the victim of abuse; it aims to reach and maintain behaviour change for both. It is about everyone helping parents tackle the problems preventing them from parenting their children safely. Rather than syphoning parents to different services to address each of their individual needs, FDAC provides holistic support and collaborative working around the family. The court provides motivating factors for parents to change their lifestyle and key workers guide parents to develop their individual insight whether they are the one experiencing or perpetrating the abuse. The glue is the problem-solving approach that underpins the model.
Sustained behaviour change
FDAC is not a panacea, but the principles underpinning its problem-solving approach increase professional’s confidence in decision-making when assessing the risk of domestic abuse.
However, applying a problem-solving approach to cases involving domestic abuse is not without its challenges. While frequent drug testing can demonstrate a change and reduction in a parent’s misuse of substances, how do we measure successful outcomes with regards to domestic abuse? No forensic risk assessment can give the certainty that the court requires so how can the judge and local authority be confident that children and others are no longer at risk? In FDAC, successful outcomes relate to impact – the changes in people’s thinking, behaviour and development as a result of an intervention. Employing a trauma-informed approach means FDAC works more explicitly with domestic abuse (than when involved in standard cases), viewing abuse as a maladaptive coping strategy to trauma and working with it like any other behavioural responses. FDAC combines enhanced information, a collaborative approach, fair decision making and judicial review and continuity with intensive tailored-support to address the root causes of parent’s problems and determine whether the impact is sustained, rather than superficial behaviour change. FDAC is not a panacea, but the principles underpinning its problem-solving approach increase professional’s confidence in decision-making when assessing the risk of domestic abuse.
So where do we go from here?
Over the past ten years, the number of applications to the family courts for care proceedings has doubled. The family justice system is increasingly under strain, with a rise in court work as local authorities, for example, refer an increasing number of domestic abuse cases into the courts. We know that the problem-solving approach, so integral to the FDAC model, offers an alternative means of addressing underlying needs and improving outcomes for families. FDAC does not view substance misuse, or domestic abuse, or mental health as standalone issues, instead acknowledging that problems are interrelated and require holistic assessment and treatment. The government’s commitment to the IDAC pilot now provides an exciting opportunity to also take a whole-system approach to criminal, family, and civil matters through its “one family, one judge” model.
However, as the evidence base for these models grows, the key policy dilemma remains: if FDAC (and wider problem-solving approaches) consistently outperform standard care proceedings, how do we shift the public family law system into one where problem-solving becomes the default way of hearing all family proceedings?