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Domestic Abuse, Anxiety and Family Court

A judge writing at a desk with a gavel at the front.

Counselling practitioners working within domestic abuse can often see clients who are going through family court processes. These cases are often about the arrangements in place for the care of the child(ren) after the couple has separated. However, in cases of domestic abuse, it is possible that the abuser is using the challenge to custody/visitation of any children through family court to exert some control over their ex-partner once again, causing significant anxiety to the client. By engaging with the legal system and forcing a hearing, the abuser is essentially saying that they disagree with the current childcare arrangements and things should be changed. This can cause huge anxiety to our client for a variety of reasons: they are likely to be concerned about increased access to the child(ren) or losing custody; they are being forced into a highly detailed process, which they had not planned for and which has the potential to overwhelm them, particularly if they are the main carer for the child(ren); and they may feel forced to address the abuser again, bringing back memories of what life was like with them. This combination of uncertainty, lack of resources and fear creates a very specific set of circumstances which can lead, understandably, to very high levels of anxiety.

 

Let’s talk firstly about the uncertainty of the court process. The outcome of the case is a matter for the court, based on presented evidence from solicitors, barristers, social workers, mental health professionals, as well as the two parents. There is a long process of fact finding and witness statements, which can take months or years to complete. At the beginning, there are many forms to be filled in, which require as much detail as possible to describe the situation currently and previously, to ensure any changes to arrangements take this into account. Where there have previous difficulties with childcare arrangements, it is helpful if logs of previous encounters with their ex-partners have been kept, to include times, dates and what happened, photographs, as well as any email exchanges, WhatsApp messages, Facebook posts and so on, but regrettably, this is not always done. There may also be interviews with social workers and any other relevant professionals. As counsellors, we may be asked by our client to write a letter to the court to confirm our client’s engagement with the counselling process and provide some feedback on the impact of the abuse and, potentially, the court process on the client’s mental health. At Dactari, we stick to the facts of our work and ask the client to review the document and sign to confirm that they are happy with what has been disclosed and to give their consent to issue the letter to their solicitor and the court for inclusion in the process.


This is a time consuming and difficult process for the client leading to high levels of anxiety, particularly if they feel they lack evidence for anything they would like to make the court aware of or present to the court. Any court ruling will be based on evidence and professional opinion and recommendation. The client is often concerned about not having said enough, or saying the ‘wrong’ thing inadvertently, or not being able to refute wrongful allegations from their abuser which may have an impact on the outcome of the case. Alongside this, the client often fears what a change in custody arrangements will mean for them and the child(ren).

 

Secondly it is worth noting that the abuser has often been planning this legal challenge for some time and has already started the legal process weeks or months before, as they will have submitted some documents to the court to state their case. The client is often unaware that court action is being taken until the paperwork arrives. They then have to start the process of responding to the documents but are already ‘behind’ in the process. Where they have custody of children, they are often a single parent, sometimes holding down a job at the same time, which means they are busy from early morning until night, with little time to provide the detailed information required. Not only are they short of time to prepare a response, they are also concerned about what will happen to the children if they cannot do so.

 

There is also another factor at play. The court system is generally seen to be an objective process, based on evidence. However, what that means for the people brought to court is that they have no control over the outcome, they can only present their case and await judgement. In effect this mirrors the process of the abuse, where the client would have had little or no control over the outcome of whatever was happening at home, suffice to say that the abuser would invariably have a more positive outcome than the client. Having spent (sometimes years) losing any battles with the abuser, the client now has another battle with serious consequences. Whilst we can talk of the fairness and objectivity of the court process, the client often feels helpless and hopeless as the history of their past relationship dominates their emotions. With helplessness and hopelessness comes sadness, a lack of efficacy and a loss of confidence. It would have been helpful for survival during the relationship to have given in to the abuser to protect themselves, to allow them to make the decisions. Now, however, it is important for them to address the issues and stand up to the abuser in court, but in doing so, the client is fighting as much with their internalised abuser as they are with the abuser they will see in court. It can feel like fighting two abusers, rather than one. Try to imagine being in court and, even if a screen is provided, knowing that your abuser is only a few feet away and very likely to challenge everything you say and probably accuse you of lying. AS a society, we ask people involved in court cases to behave reasonably, confidently and assertively. Someone lacks emotional control, cannot answer a question, or fails to push back effectively when challenged about their ‘story’ is deemed to have less credibility than someone who appears to be more ‘in control’ of the process and themselves. Regrettably the process of bringing the case does, in some way, give an advantage to the abuser which is rarely recognised.

 

Counsellors and psychotherapists can support people through the court process. In counselling sessions, we can hear client frustrations, fears and disbelief when they hear what their abuser is claiming about them, their mental health and their ability to cope. By providing a safe, neutral space, we can help the client to think through next steps; alleviate their anxiety by looking at what is going on; and help them to support themselves in court. Whilst we cannot change or influence the outcome of the court process, we can help it to be more bearable. The purpose of counselling at this stage is to support the client to get through the process.


Ironically, the fact that someone is in counselling has sometimes been held against them if presented in the ‘wrong’ way. Yet, what we see is someone making best use of the resources available to them, to gain support to stand up to their abuser and to have their say in court. If only more people could have access to this support, we could potentially have a much more balanced legal process. Perhaps this is something solicitors and barristers could consider for client wellbeing as a matter of course, rather than something available to those lucky enough to access it.

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