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Right to Equality’s report on Ending the Presumption of Contact in Family Courts

Co-directed by Dr Adrienne Barnett and Dr Charlotte Proudman


Presumption of Contact Report 14 May 2024


Please click the link to view the report in full. You can find a short summary of the report below:


Domestic abuse is harmful to children, and the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 recognises that children who live with domestic abuse are victims in their own right. Child contact is a key site for the perpetration of post-separation abuse, particularly as perpetrators may use contact to continue the abuse rather than to develop a positive relationship with their child. Despite this, the ‘presumption of contact’ or ‘pro contact culture’ of the family courts in England and Wales means that judges and professionals strongly promote and prioritise contact between children and non-resident parents following parental separation, even in cases involving domestic abuse. The statutory presumption of parental involvement, which was introduced in the Children Act 1989 in 2014, requires courts to presume “unless the contrary is shown, that involvement of [a] parent in the life of the child concerned will further the child’s welfare”, and that a parent’s involvement in the child’s life will not cause the child harm unless there is evidence to the contrary. Recent case law indicates that the presumption is rarely disapplied and that it reinforces the courts’ pro-contact culture.

Studies have consistently shown that the strong pro-contact culture leads to domestic abuse being minimised, ignored, or disbelieved, with contact being prioritised instead. Despite a better judicial understanding of the nature of coercive and controlling abuse in recent years, the minimisation of domestic abuse continues to be a feature of family court cases. The effect that coercive control has on victims, the strategies of abusers after parental separation, and perpetrators’ use of proceedings as a tactic of post-separation abuse are still not fully understood.

The pro contact culture, reinforced by the lack of understanding of domestic abuse, provides the context for the pathologisation, intense scrutiny and stereotypical expectations of mothers. The burden on victims of displacing the presumption of parental involvement/cont-act is exacerbated by interlinked systemic and attitudinal barriers to victims’ credibility in family court proceedings. Women who raise allegations of abuse may be labelled ‘delusional’, which can assist perpetrators to portray themselves as rational and position the victim as unstable.

The presumption of contact has persistently operated to silence children and deny them a valid voice in decisions about their lives. If children are able to express their views during proceedings, the strength of the pro-contact culture limits the weight given to their views. A ‘selective approach’ is often taken to children’s views, with those views taken at face value if children want contact but likely to be disregarded if they are resistant to contact, even if they have experienced domestic abuse.

In recent years, abusers have increasingly been weaponising allegations of so-called ‘parental alienation’ (PA) to undermine allegations and even findings of domestic abuse and child abuse. The silencing of mothers and children has been exacerbated by the use of PA in the family courts. Studies have found that mothers are afraid to disclose abuse in case they are accused of PA. Accepting PA as the default explanation for children’s resistance or reluctance to have contact negates the validity of children’s views and ignores the many reasons why children may not want contact.

The prevailing pro-contact culture can result in risk not being properly assessed or risk assessment being bypassed altogether. This is exacerbated by the fact that many judges and professionals tend to see only recent, severe physical violence as being ‘relevant’ to the issue of contact, which leads to the rarity of fact-finding hearings and, in turn, to inadequate or no risk assessment, and in many cases, ultimately, to unsafe contact. When allegations of PA are raised in cases, even proven domestic abuse tends to be sidelined or ignored.

The pro-contact culture of the family courts, reinforced by the statutory presumption of parental involvement, results in some form of direct contact being ordered in the vast majority of child arrangement cases, including those involving domestic abuse. Orders for no contact are extremely rare. The majority of such orders are made by consent, including in cases where allegations of domestic abuse are raised, which may stem from the pressure on parents from all sides, including their own lawyers, to reach an agreement on child arrangements. Threats of accusations of PA and child removal have been experienced by mothers as another form of coercion to agree to contact. At its most extreme, the presumption of contact can lead to mothers losing the care of their children to abusive fathers in an apparent effort to maintain or restore a relationship between the child and father. Additionally, there is evidence of the threat of children being transferred to live with their fathers if the mothers do not promote contact. Allegations of PA and PA ‘experts’ can play a critical role in child removal. The limited available research indicates that child removal can expose children to abuse and cause them lasting psychological harm.

The presumption of contact has consistently been identified as a significant barrier to achieving systemic cultural change in the family courts. It has persistently undermined efforts at achieving meaningful change and adversely affects every aspect of private law children proceedings. The Pathfinder Pilot Courts, which are currently being trialled by the UK government and commenced in February 2022 in North Wales and Dorset, have the potential for a positive transformation of family court proceedings. However, there is always the risk that the driving pro-contact culture could undermine or subvert the laudable aims of the Pathfinder Pilots. If this fundamental change in family court proceedings is to succeed, it is essential that the presumption of contact is fully and finally removed. Other jurisdictions such as the US, Australia and Spain are making progress in improving protection for adult and child victims of domestic abuse in family court proceedings. It is imperative that England and Wales follow suit, and that changes are made to law and policy to ensure that the family court stops privileging men’s right to contact over the safety and wellbeing of adult and child victims of domestic abuse.

Thank you to ambassadors Kate Kniveton MP, Jess Phillips MP, Apsana Begum MP, Dr Elizabeth Dalgarno, Tamar Barrett, and Leigh, and our advisors Ciara Bergman, Jenny Beck KC, Natalie Page, Dr Rachael Grey, Dr Jessica Taylor, and Verona Taylor-Blackford.