For victims of rape, rather than protecting them and their child, the law is being used against them
The law clearly needs to change, to flip the presumption that anyone who has fathered a child through rape should be able to apply for access regardless of the risk they present to that child, to make an application possible only in the most exceptional of circumstances, says Louise Haigh MP.
The urgent case for change which I will present in Parliament today is brought powerfully to life by the experiences of the inspirational Sammy Woodhouse. A victim of the most appalling abuse in the most appalling circumstances, she is now a determined voice holding up a mirror to the authorities and the system which failed her and other victims of child sexual exploitation like her.
In 2016 Sammy bravely testified against Arshid Hussain in a criminal trial and helped expose the Rotherham grooming scandal. Hussain was convicted, alongside two of his brothers and his uncle, of rape, indecent assault, abduction, false imprisonment and making threats to kill. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
Her beloved child was conceived as a result of that rape.
Many would think that the conviction of Hussain for that rape would disqualify him automatically from having any say in the future of Sammy’s child and in the life of the woman he abused for many years. But last year, Sammy was informed that he had been served with papers relating to the change in circumstances of her son and informing him of his right to have a say in what happened next.
This process was automatic.
For victims of rape, rather than protecting them and their child, the law was being used against them. Women who have been failed by every conceivable authority are now being failed by the courts.
That is why the law clearly needs to change, to flip the presumption that anyone who has fathered a child through rape should be able to apply for access regardless of the risk they present to that child, to make an application possible only in the most exceptional of circumstances.
This new law, developed in consultation with the former President of the Family Court, Sir James Munby would require the courts to presume, unless the contrary is show, that the involvement a father who has fathered a child through rape would be contrary to the child’s welfare.
It would provide a new layer of much-needed protection to victims who have been let down for too long.
But this case has unearthed deeper more pervasive concerns at the heart of the family courts. The necessary secrecy & lack of adequate reporting or published judgements means the family courts are not subject to the type of public scrutiny which come naturally to other institutions.
In the darkness, bad practice and discriminatory attitudes particularly towards women are being allowed to fester. Ad hoc but pioneering research by Women's Aid has pointed to a systemic failing in family courts in cases involving domestic abuse.
The system, which rightly encourages contact between a parent and a child, has all too often been shown to have neglected to consider the safety of women & children. Case studies found unsupervised contact orders were issued in two-in-five cases where there were allegations of domestic abuse.
Their report, 19 child homicides, revealed the deaths of 19 children following contact granted by the courts to men who had known violent records.
By failing to give proper weight to protecting children & mothers, the perverse outcome is that the courts can facilitate acts of violence which wouldn’t otherwise occur. This evidence is too serious to ignore and that’s why my Bill also calls for a full statutory inquiry into the family courts handling of domestic abuse.
It is time a light were shone on the darker corners of the state and it is time that women who have suffered for too long in silence were heard.
Louise Haigh is Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley.