Report finds women are frequently put in unsafe positions during proceedings, and government plans could make matters worse

Government plans to enshrine the right of both divorced fathers and mothers to see their children risk putting victims of domestic violence and their children in danger, according to a new report.

The needs of victims of domestic violence in family proceedings are currently regularly ignored and plans to prioritise "shared parenting" could worsen the situation for many abused partners, according to Rights of Women, a legal rights charity.

Victims of domestic violence often felt unsafe and sidelined in family courts and proposed new laws would compound the problem, said Emma Scott, director of Rights of Women, who carried out in-depth interviews with 34 women and 113 family law professionals. "Women and children are being put at risk because of contact put in place by the court. They continue to be exposed to violence because of those decisions," she said. "Women still feel their safety is not taken into consideration despite clear guidance in courts to prevent that happening."

The report follows criticism last week of Essex police over failings before the murder of a woman by her violent ex-partner. On the day of Jeanette Goodwin's murder police failed to make sufficient links with previous domestic violence incidents and did not fully appreciate the danger she was in, a report by the Independent Police Complaints Commission found.

The report concentrates on perceived failings in the family court system, stating that women are frequently placed in unsafe or intimidating positions with violent ex-partners. According to the report, 52% of women during family proceedings had been cross-examined by, or had to cross-examine, men who had been violent to them. One woman who spoke to researchers said: "He said he's fired his lawyer and he would be representing himself. It's scaring the life out of me because it means he will be interrogating me, asking questions, intimidating me." Three-quarters of respondents said they had concerns for their safety at court. One woman, identified as Suzanne, described being in the open waiting room: "He stood and stared at me for 15 minutes. My barrister told this to the judge, and the judge didn't take it seriously."

Another woman described being forced to attend mediation sessions with her former partner, despite a court injunction that prevented him from being within 5km of her. "In the beginning I was saying: 'Why is he here, when there's an order that he's not to be within 5km of me?' [The answer] was that he's here because he has parental responsibility and it's a separate matter," she said.

Facilities such as screens in court and separate waiting rooms were often not provided, stated the report, with almost half of the legal professionals surveyed reporting that special facilities were not advertised for intimidated court users, while 37% did not know whether they were available.

The majority of women interviewed wanted their ex-partner to have contact with their children, said Scott. "According to case law where contact is possible it should happen, and we entirely agree with that as long as it is safe," she said. "There was a lack of understanding of domestic violence among judges, she added. Rebecca, whose partner regularly screamed at her in front of her daughter and threatened to kill her, said: "I was advised that in court I need to be seen as being reasonable and not obstructive, you know, not one of 'those women'. He can be as abusive as he wants, but I'm not allowed to react."

The report calls for a shift in the way victims of domestic violence are treated in court, including better special facilities, more data recording from the Ministry of Justice on instances of domestic violence in the family courts, the flagging of domestic violence on family court databases and domestic violence training for all legal professionals including judges. But the key recommendation is for "an urgent review of the decision to restrict legal aid in family law cases", said Maddy Coy, co-author of the report. "In the aftermath of the Family Justice Review, proposals around shared parenting and cuts to legal aid have a raft of implications. Legal aid is a lifeline to many domestic violence victims who rely on it. We are hoping that with this report there is a window to influence decisions currently being taken."

Fathers' rights groups accused the report's authors of "scaremongering" and said false accusations of abuse were often used in closed family court proceedings in a bid to prevent fathers having contact with their children. "If the abuse has been proven in a criminal court then it is a serious matter and is taken into consideration, but we see false allegations in a bid to deny contact again and again," said Nadine O'Connor, campaign director ofFathers4Justice.

Earlier this year ministers rejected the advice from the economist David Norgrove, who chaired an independent official review into family justice, not to enshrine "shared parenting" rights in law after similar laws in Australia led to a series of legal claims and counter-claims and severe delays in child custody cases.

Nick Clegg stated that new "proposals [will set] out that, where it is safe and in the child's best interest, the law is clear that both parents share responsibility in their upbringing", but O'Connor argued the wording left fathers powerless and failed to satisfy either camp. "It will not change anything for fathers and it is likely to make things worse. There is too much room for manoeuvre," she said. "More than 3.8 million children are growing up without their fathers in this country not because they are at risk from their fathers, but because they are denied contact, more than 50% of contact orders are broken and 93% of residencies are awarded to mothers. Are we really saying that 93% of fathers are unfit to share in the parenting of their children?"

A spokeswoman from the Ministry of Justice said the government was committed to improving the family justice system following recommendations of Family Justice Review: "We are also committed to ensuring appropriate safeguards and protection is in place for victims of domestic violence. Many of the recommendations in this report accord with work already under way and the government will consider what further actions may be necessary."

'Women who have experienced domestic violence are seen as obstructive'

Ruth, 44, was in an abusive relationship for four and a half years and had two children with her ex-partner before she learned from police that he had served a prison sentence for raping a 14-year-old.

"It was a very horrible attack. He had tied her up and covered her head in duct tape," she said. "He was on the sex offenders register but had lied to the police about having children. When I discovered everything I told him to leave and that's when he physically assaulted me." Ruth's ex-partner threatened to commit suicide and then attacked her with a knife. When she managed to throw the weapon out of a window he grabbed her head. "He came across the room and put his hands around my head to try and break my neck," she said. "My children were upstairs and I was utterly terrified." The man fled after she bit his hand and he was arrested four days later, charged with battery and released on bail.

He then began to stalk her, serving several short prison sentences for breaking restraining orders. Ruth fled to her parents but had to flee to a refuge when her ex-partner was released from jail and moved near her home and continued to stalk her.

Two years after the attack, after several spells in prison, he applied for a contact order with his two young children. Ruth went to the family court, receiving no legal aid because she was in work. "I had to represent myself because I couldn't afford a lawyer and when I went to speak the judge told me she didn't want to hear me go on and on about why I didn't want him to have contact, because this was about what was best for our children," she said. She was embroiled in court proceedings for a year. "He would wait for me outside the court, until I had to have a police escort," she said. "I requested screens in court but each time they said it was inconvenient. It felt like they never considered the risk to me. They just weren't interested." Eventually social services did a section 7 report – an independent evaluation and assessment of the situation – which determined that Ruth's partner was dangerous and he finally withdrew his application, although he is free to apply again.

"Quite often it seems that women who have experienced domestic violence are seen as obstructive about contact," she said. "They think the offender is only a risk to the mother – but that's entirely misguided. Those children are the best weapon he has."

© Guardian News and Media 2012