Why we need a trauma-informed approach to domestic abuse in the family and criminal courts

Alderman and Sheriff Alison Gowman reflects on a recent event with SafeLives, the UK-wide charity dedicated to ending domestic abuse

A picture inside the Old Bailey
  • Published: 22 April 2022

The Old Bailey was recently the venue for a powerful event, organised and run by City Bridge Trust and one of their grantees – domestic abuse charity SafeLives, on why we need a trauma-informed approach to domestic abuse in the family and criminal courts.

I was delighted to make this event happen with two of my hats on – as the former chair of City Bridge Trust (now Deputy Chair), and in my current role at the Central Criminal Court as Sheriff. It was a good opportunity to consider some issues that touch on both the legal and criminal justice system as well as drawing on the expertise of charities that City Bridge Trust have partnered with over the years.

It was a brilliant opportunity for lots of frontline organisations, including Trust-funded services, domestic abuse specialists and legal professionals to discuss this issue. Attendees heard from a panel of engaging speakers – including a brave survivor of domestic abuse, who spoke about her own experience of navigating the family courts.

The Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs spoke about the family justice system’s treatment of domestic abuse and Old Bailey Judge Anuja Dhir QC gave her views on the criminal justice system.

Domestic abuse training for family lawyers

In 2020, the Ministry of Justice Family Harms Panel report (PDF) recommended a wide range of training for all participants in the family justice system, including: a cultural change programme to introduce and embed reforms to private law children’s proceedings and help to ensure consistent implementation”.

SafeLives response to the Review (PDF) highlighted the need for specialist training across the whole family justice system. As a result they developed and are delivering a cultural-change training programme to create systemic transformation within the family justice system and to strengthen practitioner capacity to respond well to domestic abuse. This has been kindly funded by the Legal Education Foundation

The event at the Old Bailey coincided with the launch of two reports released by SafeLives, exploring the voices of survivors and of the family legal professionals.

Don’t complain

In the first of the two reports, entitled Don’t Complain – Domestic abuse survivors’ (PDF) experiences of family lawyers’ survivors said they felt judged, often misunderstood, and ignored during the court process. A survivor who felt silenced by her lawyer told SafeLives that she was advised not to complain when she noted that reports were incorrect or were missing vital information.

Hit and miss

In the second report; Hit and miss: Family lawyers’ understanding of domestic abuse’ (PDF) legal professionals and domestic abuse practitioners identified key gaps in lawyers’ understanding. These gaps can prevent them from being able to identify and appropriately respond to survivors of domestic abuse.

Professionals from the legal sector also said that despite some great examples of excellent practice, few lawyers tend to show they understand what it might feel like for survivors to go through the family justice system which can replicate the power and control dynamics” of domestic abuse.

A reformed and informed justice system

At the event, listening to our speakers and the conversations afterwards, I felt real hope that working together, these different groups will be able to work towards a reformed and informed justice system where survivors of domestic abuse have faith in the system – where the safety of adult and child survivors is paramount and where better, safer social justice outcomes are achieved. 

We will continue to work together to ensure we make progress on this critical issue as fast as we can.

SafeLives training and progression

SafeLives look forward to continuing to pilot the cultural-change training programme with family lawyers, and working with survivors and legal professionals to improve the judicial process for victims of domestic abuse. To find out more about the training and apply to take part in a free pilot session, you can visit:

Final note

Alderman and Sheriff Alison Gowman is currently the interim Deputy Chair of the Bridge House Estates Board and associated Grants Committee.

Bridge House Estates maintains and supports five bridges across the Thames, using surplus funds for wider charitable purposes across Greater London, administered by City Bridge Trust.