FGM, domestic violence and FDACs: The last week in family law

The baby daughter of an African diplomat based in London has been made a ward of court, after concerns were raised that she could be subjected to female genital mutilation (‘FGM’). Southwark Council, which applied for an FGM protection order after the infant’s mother had raised concerns, is now seeking the waiver of the father’s diplomatic immunity in the case. Mr Justice Keehan analysed preliminary issues at a hearing at the family division of the High Court on Monday. He made the baby a ward of court and issued her with an FGM protection order, designed to safeguard young girls at risk of the practice. The judge is due to hear more evidence next month. The child’s father has denied that the mother has cause for concern for her daughter and has said that he abhors the practice of FGM.

Campaigners have called for immediate action to protect domestic violence victims when they face their abuser in the family courts. Domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid says protection afforded to people in the criminal court is not extended to the family court, with increasing reports of aggression at the court itself. Women’s Aid chief executive Polly Neate said: “Verbal and physical abuse from the perpetrator towards the victim is routinely occurring on the family court estate. This trauma makes it extremely difficult for the non-abusive parent to advocate clearly and effectively for the safety of their child.” The issue has been taken up in the House of Commons by Houghton and Sunderland South MP Bridget Phillipson, a former abuse charity worker.

The European Commission has proposed for the European Union to ratify the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention, a comprehensive international treaty on combating violence against women and domestic violence. Vera Jourová, Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality said: “Our proposal sends a clear message: victims of violence against women must be better protected across Europe … Today’s proposal for the EU to ratify the Istanbul Convention is a step forward both for our fight against violence and in guaranteeing gender equality.” The Istanbul Convention requires its parties to improve the protection of victims of violence and ensure prosecution of offenders, in several respects, including criminalising violence against women, empowering the police to remove a perpetrator of domestic violence from their home and ensuring that shelters are accessible in sufficient numbers and adequately distributed across the country.

The Centre for Justice Innovation has published a report in which it says that Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (‘FDACs’) save taxpayers money by keeping families together, reducing the number of families returning to court and reducing the incidence of substance abuse. FDACs, the first of which opened in 2008, deal with families at risk of having their children permanently removed because of drug and alcohol problems. The report claims that FDACs save the taxpayer £2.30 for every £1 spent. Phil Bowen, director of the Centre for Justice Innovation said: “It’s encouraging that problem-solving in the family courts not only delivers better justice, an important achievement in itself, but that it also offers a cost-effective way to improve the lives of vulnerable children and families.”

And finally, Nottingham City Council has been criticised by a High Court judge for being “inexcusably late” in applying to remove a new-born baby from her parents. The Council were concerned that the baby, who remained in hospital after her birth, was or would be at risk of suffering significant harm if she were placed in the care of her mother and/or her father. Accordingly, plans were made to place the baby in foster care after her mother gave birth. However, the matter did not get to court until the baby was 12 days old. The Council said it accepted that care proceedings should have been issued earlier. Mr Justice Keehan said judges should be asked to make care orders within five days of a child’s birth, and that the delays meant the parents had been denied the opportunity to properly challenge the Council, because the court could not accommodate a full one-day contested hearing. In his judgment he said he was in no doubt that the parents had been done a great disservice by the local authority and that the Council had “wholly and unreasonably failed the child, her parents and the children’s guardian.”