In 2019, LAWRS and the Step Up Migrant Women campaign published The Right to be Believed, accounting for the barriers that prevent victims with insecure immigration status from reporting abuse to the police. Among the multiple testimonies collected for the report, Katia* told us that her perpetrator ‘inch by inch used the system’, referring to how he used the knowledge he had of the system to prolong the abuse towards her. From our frontline work, we know that the way perpetrators exploit their knowledge of the system to abuse women is present at every stage of a victims’ pathway to safety, including accessing the family justice system.

The Harm Report published in 2020 found that four main overarching barriers negatively shape the responses and outcomes for victims of domestic abuse when accessing the family courts system: resource constraints, pro-contact culture, working in silos and an adversarial system. For migrant women, these barriers are magnified by structural inequalities. They encounter multiple and overlapping obstacles to accessing redress such as discrimination, racism, hostile policies, lack of knowledge of their rights when attending court, and difficulties understanding the complexity of the legal system in the UK.

LAWRS’ service users often feel that the family courts are an extension of the abuse they sought to escape when leaving perpetrators. They feel disempowered in a system that they perceive as undermining their experiences of domestic abuse, does not provide them with tools to defend themselves in court on equal grounds, and denies them their right to live free from violence. In many cases, migrant women are discriminated against because of protected characteristics and because of their immigration status. As detailed in the Harm Report, this situation is particularly acute in the resolution of custody and child contact arrangements, as evidenced by cases of migrant women who lose custody of their children to their perpetrators, despite the allegations of domestic abuse.

 

Access to information and rights 

A critical barrier for abused migrant women in accessing justice is the lack of understanding of the system. As part of the cycles of abuse, migrant victims are isolated and given false information about their rights. This limited access to information is critical because it prevents them from knowing their entitlement to provisions they can access when entering the family court system.

For migrant women whose first language is not English, language barriers play a significant obstacle in accessing justice. In combination with the lack of understanding of the system, women might not be aware of their right to access interpreters, a situation that puts victims in a disadvantaged position when opposing perpetrators that speak English. Moreover, even in cases where women request interpreters, these are not provided with the support of specialist organisations. 

Recently, we supported Laura* and her child, who were denied help by the police and the local authority because of their insecure immigration status. After she fled her household, the perpetrator took her to family court. During the first emergency hearing, she was not provided with an interpreter, despite the request made by her caseworker. As a result, she did not have a real chance to make her case and adequately disclose the abuse she and her child have been subjected to. In contrast, her perpetrator had no issue in expressing himself in court. Furthermore, this situation negatively affected Laura’s mental well-being. She felt utterly vulnerable as she did not understand any of the allegations the perpetrator made against her. 

In addition, the judge centred the session on questioning Laura about her immigration status and whether she was applying to regularise it. The judge did not consider that Laura’s irregular status is a consequence of her perpetrator’s coercive and controlling behaviour, who refused to make an application for Laura and her child. This is a clear example of the adversarial system migrant women subjected to abuse experience when accessing the family courts. Furthermore, it illustrates how the lack of a gender perspective within the justice system can obstruct the understanding of a case and negatively impact those who are already at a disadvantage.

 

Court system as an extension of abuse

Our evidence shows that perpetrators further exert coercion and control through the family courts. This is related to the adversarial nature of the system that forces women to face perpetrators under uneven conditions. The complexity of navigating the court system is compounded by the difficulties in accessing legal aid for victims of abuse. In a number of cases, our service users have had to represent themselves despite their vulnerability, owing to imposed structural barriers and the effects of having endured abuse for extended periods of time. 

Cuts to legal aid and the increased restrictions to access it have had a significant impact on migrant victims who, as mentioned above, are usually unaware of the way the legal system operates in the UK in contrast to perpetrators having the upper hand in knowing the system better than women and therefore using this as an advantage to manipulate the system in their favour.

Maria* endured more than 7 years of multiple forms of abuse. In 2020, she lost custody of her child. Contrary to Maria, who did not manage to have legal representation due to the difficulties of accessing legal aid, her perpetrator had the means to pay for a solicitor to represent him at court. Maria came to our service asking for support as she felt her voice was not heard and the abuse exerted towards her was not considered when giving custody of her child to her perpetrator. 

Furthermore, as the Harm report shows, our service users face threats of being taken to court, exposing them to further victimisation, as their vulnerabilities are not taken into consideration. 

Luisa* came to our service as her perpetrator used the family court as a tool to continue abusing her. He often took her to court accusing her of harassment when she raised concerns about anything related to their child. He also made false allegations against Maria’s mental health and accused her of parental alienation.

 

Undermining of domestic abuse in family courts 

The Harm Report shone a light on the difficulties that victims face in their experiences of domestic abuse being considered when the family courts make decisions such as child contact arrangements. The evidence that informed the report shows the way that domestic abuse is minimised and not properly considered in family courts. In the case of migrant women, our experience shows that in a number of cases frontline professionals and judges focus their interventions on denying support or questioning women’s legal status rather than treating them as victims first and foremost. Resulting from hostile environment policies, migrant victims are seen first as potential immigration offenders who are “playing the system”. As a result of this narrative, migrant victims are punished and disbelieved despite the fact that in many cases their irregular status is a consequence of the abuse they experience. 

 

Pro-contact culture 

In cases where the women we support manage to retain the custody of their children, abuse is further exerted through child contact arrangements. This situation worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic when perpetrators exploited lockdowns to extend abuse to victims through child contact. We agree with the report findings showing that priority on ensuring contact with the non-resident parent can risk the wellbeing of victims and children. 

Since the beginning of the first lockdown, Ana*, who held custody of her child, has experienced emotional and psychological abuse through child contact. As the pandemic worsened, Ana worried that the lack of care from her perpetrator could impact her and her child’s health as he did not take any measures to protect himself from the virus. Lately, he refused to share his new address with her, despite taking her child with him. Ana is scared to take him back to the family courts as he has threatened her with challenging the custody of the child if they go back to the family court, as he is a UK citizen. As the case portrays, the pro-contact culture represents a risk of extended abuse and risk of neglect of children from perpetrators. 

 

Conclusion

In general, family courts have been shown not to be spaces in which migrant victims feel safe and can access justice. Victims with insecure immigration status are continuously told by perpetrators that they will be disbelieved and that any intervention will be focused on their legal status. This fear is not unfounded, as the evidence presented here shows. Imposed structural barriers play a critical role in aggravating the negative experiences of migrant women. 

 

*Names have been changed