I recently took part in a Channel 4 news investigation (see below) in relation to this issue which was prompted by the Eve’s Law campaign. Eve is a survivor of domestic abuse who was facing the prospect of the civil court disclosing personal information which was likely to be disclosed to her violent ex-partner. Eve then mounted a campaign to change the law in this area.
I myself have seen many cases where the family courts disclose victims’ addresses or personal information to perpetrators of domestic violence.
One of the main causes is where a woman and the children flee the area to escape the abuser. The perpetrator may report her missing to the police – the police shouldn’t disclose any information about her whereabouts other than to say that she is safe and they cannot disclose any other details.
If the perpetrator then issues proceedings for contact with the children this is where the risk of disclosure escalates. The perpetrator obviously won’t mention the fact of the domestic violence in his application and the courts do not do the safeguarding checks with the police and social services straight away. He will simply say that his ex has run off with the children for no apparent reason and he needs her address so that he can send courts papers to her. Generally the court will order that the benefits agency disclose the address as she will usually be claiming child benefit or tax credits at least. The address should, in my view, remain confidential and the courts should send the papers to her without disclosing the address or even the area of the country to the perpetrator or his solicitor. Unfortunately in the majority of cases this is not what happens – her address is given to the perpetrator or his solicitors putting the woman and children at great risk and often making them feel as though they have little choice but to move areas again which will unsettle the family and be frowned upon by the court.
The court local to the perpetrator will then also transfer the proceedings to the court nearest to where mum and the children are living so even where the precise address has stayed confidential the perpetrator will then know the town in which she is living so that he can start to hunt her down.
I often advise women to change their names after they have fled to make it more difficult to be found eg by the electoral register however time and time again CAFCASS or social services inadvertently let the new name slip at meetings or in reports within the court process which again puts the family at risk.
Often my advice to a woman who has fled the area is – do nothing. That way there is less chance of disclosures being made and the secrecy of a victim’s whereabouts is the best protection there is.
The Courts need to change their procedures so that information remains confidential until it can be established that it is safe and necessary to disclose before the current practise results in a fatality.