The Voice of the Child: A Workshop on Private Family Law Proceedings Involving Sexual Abuse

Photo by Ben Wicks

By Jaime Lindsey, Liz Fisher-Frank, Jo Harwood and Gillian Francis, University of Essex, School of Law

On the afternoon of 25 March 2021, we hosted an online workshop by Zoom exploring the voice of the child in the context of the treatment of sexual abuse allegations in private family law disputes in England and Wales. The workshop brought together a fascinating mix of over 50 attendees including members of the judiciary, practitioners, academics, policy makers, organisations supporting survivors, and people with lived experience of abuse and the family courts.

The assessment of harm to children in private law cases has recently been the focus of an expert report commissioned by the Ministry of Justice, which provided the impetus for this project. Following the review, the treatment of sexual abuse allegations has been identified as an under-researched but major threat to the safety of children.

A key aim of the workshop was to respond to the need arising from the review to build an evidence base with key stakeholders in the field, something we hope to take forward following the event. This complex and difficult area of legal practice needs to be dealt with sensitively and we were delighted with the mix of attendees who respectfully and passionately engaged with the serious issues raised by the family courts’ current approach to the challenges that exist in these cases. We hope that following the event we will have the opportunity to continue our work with stakeholders to enhance the voice of the child in private family law cases.

The workshop followed a panel presentation and discussion format, held under the Chatham House rule to ensure confidentiality for attendees, given the sensitive nature of these issues. There were 10 presentations in total, including from survivors of child abuse and the family courts, a member of the judiciary, academics and practitioners in the field. Following each panel, attendees had the opportunity to ask questions and provide comments on issues raised.

Panels covered themes including:

  • amplifying the voice of the child;
  • the role of ‘parental alienation’;
  • support and training for professionals;
  • supporting children through court;
  • legal aid and associated access to justice issues;
  • the role of the family court in responding to abuse allegations and the challenges and possibilities in doing so.

A rich variety of issues were considered, including specific legal changes as well as wider cultural factors that arguably influence this area of practice.

We are grateful to all who attended and spoke at the event for making it such a supportive and insightful discussion, as well as for the generous funding provided by the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account. Working collaboratively, we held an event that was constructive and reform-oriented with the aim of furthering the conversation in this important but challenging area.

We were delighted to receive positive feedback from attendees, including from a survivor who said, ‘I really feel empowered’ following the workshop. Another said, ‘We all thought it was a fantastic event. It was brilliantly brought together and managed with such diversity of thought and experience … this really brought home the extent and complexity of some of the issues that need addressing in the family justice system’.

A full report of the event will be available soon, which will identify core themes, recommendations and next steps that we intend to pursue. If you would like to find out more about any aspect of this project or would like to be sent a copy of the report once it is available, please contact one of the organisers at the details listed below:

Jaime Lindsey: j.t.lindsey@essex.ac.uk

Jo Harwood: jh18437@essex.ac.uk

Gillian Francis: gf17473@essex.ac.uk

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