Levels of Domestic Abuse Allegations in Family Court

In 2017 Cafcass and Women’s Aid published findings of their research into “Allegations of domestic abuse in child contact cases“. Cafcass looked at 216 cases from their case records where they had been asked by the court to investigate applications for arrangements orders in relation to spending time with a child. The sample came from cases logged between April 2015 and March 2016 where the parties were both parents.

All the cases were used to provide information that can be measured in numbers (quantitative). Of the 216 they then selected 40 cases where domestic abuse (DA) was alleged in order to draw out further findings that are not so easily measured in numbers such as people’s experiences, opinions and thoughts (qualitative). 20 were cases where Cafcass had only participated up to the first hearing and another 20 where they had also worked on later hearings.

The report also sought to detail the impact of DA and the court process on children. A number of examples highlighting the harm to children of witnessing/being a party to alleged physical violence.

Summary of findings

Domestic abuse was alleged in 62% of cases (133 cases out of 216). In some cases DA was alleged by both parties. 24% of alleged victims were fathers (40), 76% mothers (126).

73% of all cases included other factors such as allegations of substance abuse, a parent’s mental health or emotional abuse of the child. 119 cases (55%) included allegations of DA and other allegations. 44 (19% – stated as 20% in study) included no allegations whatsoever.

The research looked at 3 categories of DA, physical, sexual and coercive control.

Alleged Perpetrator/
Alleged Abuse
Coercive control14%40%

Table 1 – Types of DA alleged

It also looked at the types of orders made at the first hearing.

DA alleged/
Contact ordered
% of cases with
allegations of DA
% of cases with
no allegations of DA
% of all cases
No contact7%4%6%
No order made42%30%37%
Not known1%2%2%

Table 2 – Type of contact ordered at first hearing

For those cases where unsupervised contact was ordered at the first hearing in cases where DA was alleged, unsupervised contact had already been in place in 67% of cases at the time of the application. In 33% of cases it had been in place 6 months prior to the court.

The following shows the recommendations made by Cafcass to the judge at the next hearing on the basis of their findings. This relates to only 102 cases as Cafcass did not provide recommendations at the next hearing for 114 cases.

DA alleged/
Contact ordered
% of cases with
allegations of DA
% of cases with
no allegations of DA
% of all cases
No contact14%7%12%
No order made4%3%4%

Table 3 – Cafcass recommendations for the type of contact proposed

At the final hearing judges made the following decision on contact for all 216 cases.

DA alleged/
Contact ordered
% of cases with
allegations of DA
% of cases with
no allegations of DA
% of all cases
No contact2%1%2%
No order made12%9%11%
Not known31%35%32%

Table 4 – Type of contact ordered at final hearing

In the majority of cases the court/Cafcass had followed Practice Direction 12J in dealing with cases of alleged abuse with regards to completing safeguarding and speaking to both parents. There was less success with both parents being present in court for the final hearing but this was mainly for reasons outside Cafcass’ or the court’s control.

It is described that orders were mainly made with the consent of both parties at the first hearing and final hearing (89% where DA was alleged and 86% where it was not). This led Women’s Aid to raise concerns that those alleging abuse may have been coerced to agree out of fear.

Thoughts on the study

Domestic abuse is a serious issue. It causes trauma to victims and children. It is valuable to look into the types of allegations made and the impacts such cases have on victims.

That said there are some concerns with the report:

  • 216 is a small sample size given there were 15,160 cases relating to applications by parents for contact. The sample was at least chosen at random.
  • It was unclear why only 40 cases alleging DA were selected for qualitative research.
  • It was not gendered in it’s analysis, highlighting allegations made against both mothers and fathers.
  • A massive piece of data is missing with regards to understanding if the allegations were proven or unproven. In cases where a child is triangulated into spousal conflict it is not uncommon for a parent or child to make false allegations in order to block contact with the other parent. Requests under Freedom of Information Act (FOI) show that family courts do not keep statistics on the levels of proven/unproven allegations of abuse in an easily accessible format. You have to question why there isn’t a desire to surface this information. It may be that there was no fact finding or it could be that the allegations were considered but discounted. Either way a record should be kept of this outcome.
  • A study into false allegations of abuse in contested family law cases in 2014 by Tommy MacKay from the University of Strathclyde found that from a sample of 72 families 65% of cases included no allegations at all. Where allegations of abuse had been made, 70% were found to be false on the best available evidence. A further 24% were unsubstantiated. In the sample it was determined that 5 children had been coached. This study only looked at physical and sexual abuse so this may in some way, account for the wide difference with the levels of allegations made in the Cafcass study.
  • False allegations wrecks lives. It causes trauma in the victim, some experience loss of reputation and relationships. Victims may spend a significant amount of money they do not have defending themselves against allegations, hundreds of thousands of pounds in worst cases. Some become so traumatised they commit suicide. For children, when they finally understand what has been going on/the gravity of what they have said and done in the past, it results in guilt and trauma. The MacKay study found that 30% of children in families where allegations of abuse had been made required mental health assessment in comparison to 11% where no abuse was alleged. This is why it is so important to understand the levels of proven and unproven allegations so we can ensure family court processes and support services are serving the real victims, whether that be someone who has suffered domestic abuse, someone who has had false allegations made against them or a child who has been coerced to make/support false allegations.
  • Making allegations of DA appears to make it more likely that no contact will be awarded in the first hearing. Judges will be more cautious as they do not yet have the full facts of the case. This doesn’t align to the messages the anti DA lobby send out that family courts promote “contact at all costs”. For cases that involve manipulative behaviours which lead to an emotional cutoff from a “good enough” parent any delay to establishing contact is a massive problem. If contact cannot be re-established swiftly, some say within 3 months, the child’s position will become entrenched requiring significantly more support and specialised services to reunify which is extremely expensive and cost prohibitive for many parents.
  • It is unclear why cases where there are no allegations of DA resulted in supervised or no contact. It may be due to other allegations of substance abuse, a parent’s mental health or emotional abuse of the child to reject time with a “good enough” parent but this needs to be expanded upon. “Good enough” parents should not be denied direct contact.
  • It appears that judges broadly tend to align with Cafcass recommendations, however, they appear to be more likely to make no order or order no contact where recommendations are made for supervised, supported or indirect contact. This again seems to dispel the “contact at all costs” position of Women’s Aid.
  • Women’s Aid rightly raise concerns about alleged victims being controlled/coerced into agreeing to contact, yet there is no recognition that some parents may actually increase the level and severity of false allegations over time as they lose power/the court increases contact. Children may also be empowered to make false allegations of their own. In addition, based on anecdotal evidence parents don’t really agree the orders, the judge makes the decision and usually at least one parent is unhappy about the outcome.
  • 19% of cases had no allegations of any kind. The report didn’t draw out why those cases were in court at all. If a case has got to court, something is going on psychologically/emotionally for at least one of the parents or their legal representative. The latest report from the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory “Uncovering private family law: Adult characteristics and vulnerabilities (Wales)” indicated that in their sample 67.7% of applications to family court did not include any safeguarding concerns.
  • There doesn’t appear to be any indication in the report that parents are making allegations of “parental alienation” (PA). It is often stated by the anti DA lobby that PA is used as a smoke screen by abusive men to be able to continue their abuse of women and children. It is unclear if this factored in to allegations of coercive control. It may also be that Cafcass had not formally recognised PA as a form of child abuse until October 2017 a few months after this study concluded, but that should not have stopped allegations of it from being recorded in the cases.
  • The case data set was incomplete, not all cases included a final order so the overall outcome was unknown. This was mainly because Cafcass involvement ended prior to final hearing. There should be a way to record full outcomes/ensuring all data relating to an application is stored in a single place.
  • It was interesting that the report cited other studies that had looked at levels of allegations and this ranged from 49-90%. Digitisation and re-design of how case data is captured would help improve the ability to perform data analytics on a regular basis.