Today, Louise Haigh, MP for Sheffield Heeley, is bringing a bill to Parliament that will change the way family courts are currently failing survivors of rape and domestic abuse. Currently, the law allows rapists to have automatic access to children that were conceived as a result of rape. In attempting to fight this law, Haigh has found ‘pervasive’ practices exist within family courts that has allowed for systematic failing of domestic abuse survivors to develop.
Working on a case with Sammy Woodhouse, one of the women whom helped expose the Rotherham grooming scandal in 2016, the failings in the court were found when her rapist - Arshid Hussain – was granted automatic rights to their child, who was conceived as a result of rape.
‘Many would think that the conviction of Hussain for that rape would disqualify him automatically from having any say in the future of Sammy’s child and in the life of the woman he abused for many years,’ Louise wrote for Politics Home, ‘But last year, Sammy was informed that he had been served with papers relating to the change in circumstances of her son and informing him of his right to have a say in what happened next. This process was automatic.’
When Woodhouse spoke out against the process in a video posted online, where she asked ‘what about my rights?’, she urged the government to change the law ‘to ensure rapists can’t gain access to children conceived through rape’. Louise’s bill will suggest that very change, with exceptions made only in extreme circumstances.
The new law ‘would require the courts to presume, unless the contrary is show, that the involvement a father who has fathered a child through rape would be contrary to the child’s welfare,’ she stated, ‘It would provide a new layer of much-needed protection to victims who have been let down for too long.’
It was her work on this case, however, that highlighted just how discriminatory family courts are against women, according to Louise. Her concerns are shared by Women’s Aid, whom released research earlier this year that revealed 19 children have been killed following court decisions that grant contact to men known to have violent records. Case studies also found that unsupervised contact orders were issued in two-in-five cases where domestic abuse allegations had been made.
‘By failing to give proper weight to protecting children & mothers, the perverse outcome is that the courts can facilitate acts of violence which wouldn’t otherwise occur,’ Louise said, ‘This evidence is too serious to ignore and that’s why my Bill also calls for a full statutory inquiry into the family courts handling of domestic abuse.’
According to her, the necessary secrecy that surrounds family courts, whereby legally it’s more difficult for media outlets to report on them – and therefore hold them to account – means that a ‘bad practice and discriminatory attitudes’ towards women have been allowed to fester in the darkness.
The inquiry into this issue in family courts will hopefully allow for more accountability in cases where survivors of rape and domestic abuse have been failed by the courts. ‘Women who have been failed by every conceivable authority are now being failed by the courts,’ Louise concluded, ‘It is time a light were shone on the darker corners of the state and it is time that women who have suffered for too long in silence were heard.