How courts deal with vulnerable applicants and witnesses is coming under increasing scrutiny, after justifiably negative publicity about cases of alleged perpetrators interviewing their own potential victims in open court with insufficient practical and emotional protection for the potential victims. Contesting vulnerability within an already fraught set of proceedings is neither a way to secure justice nor is it a means of protecting fragile mental health.
The current focus is opening a Pandora’s box of other vulnerable groups to whom family courts risk being systemically insensitive, through the routine processing of applications. The arrival of a child and their family at the family court is accompanied immediately by processes to narrow the issues in an application. This can mean keeping to the evidence base which will help to determine the judicial outcome and excluding some family members, like a child’s siblings, who may have an equally compelling case to make about their own predicament.
All family court practitioners do their best to be sensitive and to support anyone vulnerable, to the utmost of their abilities. It is just that sometimes the full extent of social need is beyond the capacity of the court apparatus and the time available to do it justice. For example, parents with a learning disability may go through a court case with only a vague awareness of what is taking place, despite having advocates and support workers. It is just the enormity of the situation which is beyond the capacity of some participants at court to cope with.
We have a lot of work to do if at the end of the next stage of family justice reform we can claim to have made the court process fundamentally safer, more comprehensible and less emotionally damaging for vulnerable applicants and witnesses. There is no magic solution to this, just a series of small and sustained practical steps such as ensuring a physical separation at court and in court between alleged perpetrator and victim in 100 percent of cases. Understanding and protecting vulnerable applicants and witnesses is everyone’s business, right the way through from screening and gatekeeping an application to making sure that the final court outcome is heard and understood.
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