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Family Court Reform

Volume 649: debated on Tuesday 13 November 2018

People often come to the courts system when they are at their most vulnerable, and we want to ensure not only that they have a fair system to determine their disputes, but that it is as simple and straightforward as possible. In the family courts, we are making the process not only more simple but less antagonistic. For example, we are making our application processes more straightforward in divorce and child arrangement applications; we are committed to giving the family court the power to prohibit abusers from cross-examining their victims; and we are consulting on taking the requirement of fault out of divorce.

If the courts were to publish clear advice as to what access parents might reasonably expect, fewer of them would perhaps be tempted to litigate, would they not?

As my right hon. Friend implies, every parent who separates wants to continue to have contact with their child. I was pleased to talk about this issue with him and my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen). I have taken up their proposal and spoken about it with the president of the family division, as well as with a number of organisations that deal with children and legal representatives in the family courts. I should say that they all have differing perspectives, but we are looking at this matter very closely.

It is now two years since the Government made a commitment to ban perpetrators from cross-examining victims of domestic abuse in family courts, which the Minister has just mentioned, but when will she actually follow through on that and finally act on this issue?

Does the Minister agree that the consultation on divorce law reform is an opportunity to look into ways to cause less harm to children of all parents who separate, as well as to strengthen families along the lines of the marriage and relationship support initiative brought in by Lord Mackay?

We in the Ministry of Justice are committed to the institution of marriage and recognise the value that it brings to the children of a marriage, as well as to society as a whole. Our proposals and consultation on divorce are about looking at how to make the process easier when the very difficult decision to divorce has been made. Of course, any measures to strengthen families would be welcome.

Will the Minister outline the steps that have been taken specifically to address the reform of fathers’ rights during divorce proceedings on access to children?

All parents’ rights are incredibly important, but in the family court the heart of every case is the child’s best interests. That is the basis on which judges make their determination. There is a presumption that contact with both mother and father is in the child’s interests, but each case depends on its own facts.

Women’s Aid has long been concerned that although the experiences of victims of domestic abuse are taken seriously in the criminal courts, they are diminished or even ignored in the family courts. That is exactly what is happening to a woman with whom I am in touch, whose spouse is serving time for attempting to murder her. She has been asked to provide pension and bank statements, payslips, proof of the valuation of her home, and even evidence of the medical toll on her health. It is wrong. Will the Minister work with me to change the law to stop those who attempt to murder their spouse reaping any financial benefit?

Domestic violence is a huge issue on which the Government have taken several steps, including by widening the scope of abuse that is caught by the law on coercive control and by the requirements for legal aid. I am pleased to have met the hon. Lady already to discuss the issue that she mentions, and we are looking into it.