Former MP case may encourage abuse victims to come forward

Former MP case may encourage abuse victims to come forward

Ian Walker - Solicitor/ Mediator/ Arbitrator/ M

Ian Walker – Solicitor/ Mediator/ Arbitrator/ Managing Director

Family Court proceedings almost always take place in private, and very few judgments are published. These things can lead to public concern, and even suspicion, about the workings of the family justice system, discouraging some from using the court.

But a decision by the Court of Appeal last week, which made the national news headlines, may help to change that.

 

Fact-finding

The decision revolved around a Family Court case involving former MP and government minister Andrew Griffiths and his ex-wife Kate Griffiths. Ms Griffiths is a current MP, having replaced Mr Griffiths as MP for Burton upon Trent in 2019.

Mr Griffiths and Ms Griffiths separated in 2018, the year that their child was born. Mr Griffiths subsequently applied to the Family Court in Derby for an order that he spend time with the child. In response to the application Ms Griffiths made a number of allegations of serious domestic abuse against Mr Griffiths. The court fixed a fact-finding hearing, to investigate the allegations.

The fact-finding hearing took place in November 2020. The judge made findings against Mr Griffiths of domestic abuse, including rape and coercive control, but decided that the findings should not be made public, in order to protect the child. Mr Griffiths did not seek to appeal against the findings.

Two journalists subsequently applied to the court for permission to publish the fact-finding judgment, including the names of the parties, arguing that there was a public interest in doing so. The application was supported by Ms Griffiths, the child’s Guardian and the women’s legal advice charity Rights of Women.

Mr Griffiths opposed the application. He accepted that the judgment could be published, but argued that the interests of the child made it necessary that he, the mother, and the child should be anonymised.

The application was heard by Mrs Justice Lieven DBE, in the High Court. She found that because of the child’s very young age it was unlikely to be affected by the publication of the judgment, and the findings themselves would have a material impact upon the child’s contact with its father,

 rather than the publication of the judgment. Accordingly, she ordered that the judgment could be published.

Mr Griffiths appealed, to the Court of Appeal.

encourage abuse victims to come forward

The Court of Appeal did not think that it could fairly be argued that Mrs Justice Lieven’s conclusion, in the unusual circumstances of the case, was wrong. On the contrary, the Court of Appeal considered that she was clearly right. Accordingly, Mr Griffiths’ appeal was dismissed. The fact-finding judgment could therefore be published, complete with the names of the parties.

 

Public interest

In the course of her judgment Mrs Justice Lieven said that she considered that there is a broader public interest in the publication of the judgment, including the identification of the parties. She explained that there is a well recorded concern that victims of domestic violence, and particularly women and girls, are often unwilling to come forward to the courts. The fact that Family Court proceedings almost always take place in private and that that it is exceedingly rare for judgments to be published where there have been findings of domestic abuse give rise to a public concern about the workings of the family justice system.

Mrs Justice Lieven said that in her view there was a real benefit in a judgment such as this being brought to the public’s attention, to show the workings of the Family Court in a transparent fashion. And without the names of the parties the judgment would receive little publicity.

 

Importance of the decisionCourt of Appeal

As the Court of Appeal made clear, the circumstances of this case were unusual. The decision will certainly not mean that many more people who are found to have committed domestic abuse will be named. The need to protect the children involved will still mean that in most cases identities will be kept secret.

However, the judgment will hopefully be read by abuse victims, who will see not just how seriously the Family Court takes abuse allegations, but also how carefully the allegations are considered, thereby encouraging them to come forward.

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