The Family Court often deals with cases which have been started because one person is frightened because of violence or harassment and wants protection, or where a person involved in the case is frightened of coming to court or of having to see the other person. Parents who come to court are sometimes refusing to let the other parent see a child because they are frightened that the children will be harmed. Often this is connected to domestic violence or abuse but sometimes it is related to feared child abuse of some kind. Sometimes a parent is worried their child will be taken away by the other parent, perhaps out of the country. The judges and court staff are all familiar with dealing with people in these scenarios and are usually very helpful.
This page gives you some information about how the court can help and how other agencies can help if you are frightened for yourself or someone else.
It covers :
- Domestic violence & abuse
- Intimidation at court
- Intimidation after court
- Giving evidence
- Concerns for the safety of a child
Domestic violence & abuse
No-one should have to suffer domestic violence or abuse. The law is there to protect you.
The legal system uses a very broad definition of domestic abuse. Domestic violence can include:
- Actual physical or sexual violence;
- Threats of physical or sexual violence;
- Verbal abuse;
- Emotional abuse – for example running you down or name calling,
- Controlling behaviour – such as controlling where you go or what you wear, or controlling your finances or communication with others);
Domestic violence and abuse happens to men and women, and is carried out by both men and women.
Where somebody needs protection from an partner, ex-partner or family member they can make an application for a court order called a non-molestation order. A non-molestation order is a sort of injunction that tells the other person things they must not do. If they ignore the order and do one of the things that are prohibited (not allowed) it is a criminal offence and the police can arrest them. Typically an order will prevent an ex-partner from:
- Being violent towards you or your children;
- Threatening violence towards you or your children;
- Communicating with you or your children (except perhaps through lawyers or a specific method);
- Harassing you or your children by going to certain places (i.e – your house, workplace or school).
If you are a victim of domestic abuse you may be entitled to legal aid firstly to get a non-molestation order, and secondly if a court case about the children or your finances follows (See our page about legal aid here).
If there is a risk that the other person might react violently to you asking for an order the court can make the order before the other person is told about it, so your protection is in place first – but this is only a temporary arrangement – the other person will be able to come to court afterwards and try and get the order lifted.
The court can also deal with this sort of application urgently if necessary. You will need to explain why it is urgent. It is a good idea to take a photo of your partner / ex to court to give to the court bailiffs, as they will usually serve the order upon them for people without lawyers, and they need to know who to look for.
You do not have to have a lawyer to make an application for a non-molestation order, but you might find it reassuring to take a friend or support worker with you to support you if you go without a lawyer. Some domestic violence organisations have workers who will help you make the application or will make it for you.
Having a lawyer at court would provide you with support outside of court and also limits any direct contact between yourself and the domestically abusive individual. A lawyer can advise you about what protection the court is able to give you. You might find the Rights of Women video about safety in court useful (see our video page).
If you’re not entitled to legal aid (perhaps because you work and your income is too high) you can still instruct a lawyer, although you would have to pay (find out more here).
Your support worker (for example from a domestic violence agency) or IDVA if you have one (Individual Domestic Violence Advocate) will usually be allowed to support you at court. You can also be accompanied by a friend or family member. There is more information about that and other organisations and services that are available to provide you with some support at court here : I need support at court.
Family cases mainly take place in private. This means that only those directly involved in the case will be allowed into court, unless the judge agrees (The press are allowed to attend unless someone objects but they rarely do).
Intimidation at court
Many people are concerned about the other party being threatening and/or intimidating in the court building. In fact most people are on “best behaviour” in the court environment and this doesn’t happen very often but there are ways of dealing with this.
If you are worried about sitting in the same waiting area as the other party you can contact the court and ask for a separate waiting area. In fact, many of the application forms and response forms ask if you would like separate waiting areas.
All courts have security staff and you will probably have to pass through security on your way in to the court building.
If you do feel intimidated or are concerned for your safety then notify a member of court staff, security or CAFCASS or the judge.
Read our page on extra help at court for details of other “special measures” that the court can put in place to help make it easier for you to take part in the court process and to give evidnce.
Intimidation after court
If you are worried about leaving the court building because you might be abused or intimidated by the other party on the way home, you can wait in the court building for a short period of time until they have left the building. If you explain the situation court security staff may try and let you know when the coast is clear. In some courts there is a side or back exit that court staff will arrange for you to use if you are worried. Even though the hearing is private it is fine to travel to and from court with a friend or family member who can wait in the court building whilst the hearing is going on.
Once you have left the Court building you should contact the police immediately if someone is following, intimidating or threatening you.
Many cases are dealt with without anyone having to give evidence, but sometimes it is unavoidable. If you do have to give evidence but are worried that you will be too frightened or too scared to speak openly in front of the other person then you should ask the Judge about Special Measures (See here). Giving evidence under special measures could involve you giving evidence from behind a screen or via a video-link so they don’t put you off by making eye-contact with you or pulling faces.
Concerns For The Safety Of A Child
If you are concerned about the safety of a child you should raise this with the CAFCASS officer when they first contact you and/or Judge during a court hearing.
If the child is not in your care but you are concerned they are at risk of harm you could contact social services (in Bristol by calling First Response) or Police, but if CAFCASS are involved you should notify them also.
If an urgent matter that occurs between court hearings then you should raise it with the police and/or Social Services immediately.
If you are concerned that an ex-partner may try to remove a child from your care you can apply to court for an urgent Prohibited Steps Order. A Prohibited Steps Order will prevent one or both parties from removing a child from the care of the other and/or from England & Wales.
If you think that a child is just about to be abducted you should also contact Police who may be able to set up a Port Alert.
You can find out more about child abduction the Reunite website, including details of their advice line and from the Child Abduction Unit on .gov.uk : Find help to get your child back from abroad or arrange contact.