There are few things that fill me with dread more than the idea of my children being scared. I do all I can to protect them from fear, just like most mums and dads all across the world.
Imagine you are five years old. Through the crack in your bedroom door you watch your mother begging your dad to stop while he kicks her again. You rush back to your bed and wait for it to stop. Eventually the house is quiet until tomorrow.
This is the reality for too many children in the UK. For most mums I have met who have escaped domestic violence it was their children's fear that gave them the courage to escape. Most women living in refuge have given up their homes, their jobs, their security, their finances, their extended families and their hometowns to keep their children from another night of fear.
A child should always be put first. A child should never be used as a weapon.
Today the APPG for Domestic Violence releases our report on Domestic Abuse, Child Contact and the Family Courts. The family courts have long been an institution shrouded in secrecy. Scrutiny of them has always been difficult. I am not the first to raise this concern in the Commons and I am afraid I won't be the last.
The APPG heard evidence from a number of victims who reported how the family courts had taken them back to a place of terror. Families who had escaped and should have been able to begin to build a safer, less scary life were once again faced the person they were fleeing. We heard cases where fathers who were convicted of violent crimes against the family were able to use the family courts to start a whole new era of coercion and control. These are not extreme examples, when I worked in refuge I heard this time and time again. Even when the children were terrified and didn't want to ever see their violent parent again, fathers were able to keep power and contact with mothers through the courts.
The evidence presented to the APPG showed many women representing themselves in the family courts. Recent cuts to the funding for legal aid have seen a growing number of people acting as litigants in person, in other words without a lawyer in court. This is not unique to cases of domestic violence, however 80% of all family court cases in 2013/14 had at least one party without legal representation. The devastating side effect of this in cases of domestic violence is that a perpetrator can cross examine their victim. The Women's Aid 2015 survey of survivors of domestic abuse found that 25% of women had been directly question in court by their perpetrator. At present our justice system allows a father who might have beaten, belittled, raped and controlled a mother to question her in court. Again I ask you the reader to imagine for a second how you might feel faced with someone who had raped you, strangled you or attempted to kill you. I know how I would feel - terrified.
Over the years successive governments have made changes to how vulnerable people give evidence in our criminal courts. We have seen special measures put in place so victims and perpetrators are not put in the same waiting rooms. We have seen adult and child victims of sexual and physical violence able to give evidence behind screens or via video. Each and every one of these advances should make us proud of our civilised justice system. And so the alternative is true in our family courts. Every victim questioned or even approached in court by their violent aggressor brings shame on our justice system; makes us look backward and unjust. Every woman forced to answer to a man who has humiliated her, belittled her and dehumanised her puts a dent in so called justice. I think for most people hearing this for the first time will think it more in line with practice of backward countries whose poor record of human rights we would scoff at. Yet this scenario will be taking place today in every family court across the UK.
Far from the popular idea that women poison their children against their violent fathers, all my experience shows how women minimise their abuse, hide it from their children, do all they can to protect them and give them some faith in where they came from. There is a common view that while people recognise how awful domestic violence is, people still think a violent perpetrator can be a good dad. I have heard people say time and time again, "He never beat the kids, he wasn't a bad dad." I disagree. I think a parent who terrifies their child, forces their family in to chaos, perpetrates violent and criminal acts of physical, psychological and sexual abuse to any one in a family should have no rights as a parent. We must stop the misconception that men have no rights in the family courts, it is plain wrong and I would hope anyone who thinks it will read our report today and see how badly women who have been abused are being treated.
The report presents us with an opportunity to advance our justice system and remove some of the barbaric practices of the UK Justice system. Victims of domestic violence deserve courts that will treat them with care and dignity at present they have neither.