Jan Williams, founder and director of Cedal, practised family law in West Yorkshire, in firms with legal aid franchises from 1993 to 2009 after an earlier career teaching English, then time at home with a young family while re-qualifying. As a member of the Law Society Family and Children Panels she dealt with many matters in the varied field of family law, but found her most satisfying work acting for applicants and respondents in private law domestic abuse and children matters.
Now living in North Yorkshire, she sits on the North Yorkshire Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner’s Domestic Abuse Scrutiny Panel and sees how the criminal justice system – a system by its very nature focused on punishment – struggles to meet the needs of victims and children for protection. Read more on the Domestic Abuse Scrutiny Panel
More recently, Jan joined a local IDAS (Independent Domestic Abuse Services) Family Court Working Group where the corrosive effects of the DVCVA are made clear: the frustration of judges unable to enforce their own orders and the difficulties solicitors face attempting to negotiate satisfactory resolution of cases in the far less predictable, lengthier, more fragmented, and more adversarial setting of the family courts. County courts, once valued for their flexibility and pragmatism in resolving complex and sensitive family issues have, since the DVCVA, assumed the least helpful features of the criminal courts. Like all of us, Jan reads harrowing reports of deaths of women and children at the hands of partners or former partners, who sometimes then kill themselves. These cases generally show a pattern of increasingly severe abuse preceding such tragedies. Many have featured earlier interventions from the police, social services and domestic abuse charities – to little effect. Jan finds such deaths particularly distressing, given the legislation in the Family Law Act part IV to provide a safe route from abuse.
Jan is wary of suggestions that ‘risk’ (mostly limited to physical harm) can be ‘managed’- with women and children referred by police to domestic abuse charities ‘without clout’. Such charities may not in themselves give best advice on the civil provisions, including legal aid availability, so leaving vulnerable people in abusive situations. These situations deeply impact children’s long-term mental health and may suddenly deteriorate into serious physical harm, or into children behaving in ways harmful to themselves and others, thence to permanent removal by the State.
Jan believes those who need the law’s protection must have faith in the system – access to justice and effective justice. But ‘The MoJ (Ministry of Justice) doesn’t easily change its mind,’ wrote the then Executive Officer of Women’s Aid, in an email to Jan in 2009. After 13 years since the DVCVA’s disastrous weakening of injunctions, it’s time it did.
If you are active in a women’s group (or a men’s), a children’s charity, lawyers’ association, political party or trade union, you could ask your organisation to consider adopting the 250 word Resolution to Strengthen the Family Law Act’s Protection for Victims to put to government. It’s worth contacting your MP for support and advice as to how best to do this. It was my own MP who inspired Cedal.
Meanwhile please sign and circulate the Petition urging government without delay to let family judges to attach powers of arrest to their orders, promoting compliance and unbroken, strong victim protection. (Breach may remain on the statute book for now as an offence, with victims of breach able to become a witness in criminal proceedings should any be so inclined.)
If you are an investigative journalist or documentary film-maker, I urge you to explore the issues Cedal raises. Those most adversely affected by the DVCVA are among society’s least powerful and most voiceless, their real needs unmet in the DVCVA’s ideological and unwinnable ‘war on abusers.’
Jan gives presentations to groups. She also welcomes contributions and comments from anyone concerned with or affected by the issues raised by Cedal.