Training In Supporting Sexual And Domestic Abuse Victims

Today marks the start of the Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Week, with events across the country to speak out against sexual abuse, as well as stand up in support of victims and survivors. 

Sexual abuse, violence, including domestic abuse and violence is a difficult subject for many to understand and comprehend the impact it has on the lives of those who suffer.   

Many victims will not realise they are in fact victims for a very long time, especially when it involves coercive, financial control or even cultural acts such as female genital mutilation or ‘honour’ violence. 

When a victim of domestic or sexual abuse and violence makes the brave step to leave their abuser, often the legal professional they approach does not understand the depths to which they are affected and the help their client actually requires. 

Charities such as Refuge run an outreach programme as well as independent advocacy services, which can help “give a voice to those who feel voiceless”.  The Independent advocates are also able to provide training to key agencies such as the police and Crown Prosecution Service, meaning they are better able to respond to cases of domestic violence. 

Research in 2016 conducted by Ecorys for the SRA, it was noted that 80% of family law solicitors dealt with domestic violence, but it appeared that clients were actually struggling to find a solicitor who understood their needs: 

It’s difficult to find a specialist for domestic abuse who understands the nature of the problem and can properly understand and deal with the abuser’s subtle tactics” (Customer, divorce with children involved) 

“Somebody who had time to deal with the complexity of the case and sensitivity…Somebody that really understood the situation and how abusive… and the sort of tactics he would use through his solicitors that affected my solicitor.” (Customer, divorce with domestic violence) 

The research also found that: 

“The legal firms reported that survivors of domestic abuse were often the least confident when seeking legal advice. This was confirmed in the research as the consumers who had experienced domestic abuse also voiced the most concern about seeking assurance about the experience of their solicitor, as they needed the legal professional to understand how abusive and controlling relationships can affect all aspects of a relationship dynamic and may have an impact on their case as it progressed.” 

In September 2019 a petition was submitted that asked for “Training for Solicitor’s & Sheriff’s in Family Courts on Domestic Abuse”.  The author of the petition was a “survivor of Domestic abuse & a victim of the failings of Family Court System”, who stated: 

“I believe there has to be compulsory training for Solicitors & Sheriffs in Family Courts on Coercive Control & Domestic Abuse. To understand that abusers use Family Courts & Legal Aid to continue the abuse.” 

The petition was rejected as it was not something that the UK Government or Parliament was responsible for, but rather a decision for the Sheriff Court or Law Society of Scotland. 

It is clear that victims and charities supporting victims, feel their voices are not being heard by those who are there to help them.   

Therefore, how can solicitors best train themselves to understand their clients better when it becomes apparent they are victims of domestic and sexual abuse? 

Could solicitors receive better training to spot victims who may not have either realised they are victims or are seeking advice from a solicitor when leaving an abuser. 

If you search for ‘domestic abuse’, ‘training’ and ‘solicitor’, you will find pages of information on either firms advertising that they have solicitors trained in handling domestic abuse, or training available in Scotland. 

Resolution have a ‘Domestic Abuse Alert Toolkit’ available that is ‘designed to help family solicitors and mediators who are not domestic abuse experts, to identify situations where clients may be suffering domestic abuse and/or violence.’  The toolkit defines and highlights those at risk, and even has a list of screening questions that allow a solicitor to sensitively explore the risks to the client. 

As well as the toolkit Resolution offers, there is also an online course available for ‘everyday family lawyers’ that ‘provides practical information and guidance on how to screen for domestic abuse’, that ‘will give you an overview of domestic abuse, how it manifests itself and how you can identify if your client may be a victim.’. 

review into the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 in May 2019 stated that “training may not currently be sufficient enough to ensure that all practitioners understand the potential for continues abuse/coercive control” and that “it was necessary that solicitors and judges should receive training in domestic abuse, coercive control and trauma”. 

“…we are regularly told by domestic abuse victims that their solicitors say not to mention domestic abuse as ‘the sheriff won’t like it‘ or ‘this action is about the child not you’. We have been told by victims of domestic abuse that sheriffs have also been dismissive of allegations of domestic abuse. It was hoped the additions to the 1995 Act would stop that practice, but we have seen no evidence of this. Therefore these provisions should be highlighted as a crucial part of the decision-making process.”  (Domestic Abuse Support Service)  

This also reflects the issues currently being raised in family courts, where judges are seen to have outdated views, which has caused a High Court judge to call for family court judges to receive training on the “appropriate” ways to handle rape cases. 

Without dedicated courses that concentrate on the sensitivities of interacting with clients who are victims, or potential victims of domestic or sexual abuse, could solicitors and barristers be doing more? 

We spoke to a number of firms on how they arm themselves with the knowledge to give their client the best and most compassionate experience possible. 

Zulfi Khan, from Ten Legal Solutions, told us: 

Clients who are divorcing, or resolving child access matters where there has been an aspect of sexual or domestic abuse are often the most difficult, as it is necessary to obtain specific details of incidents that occurred which are understandably difficult to talk about.  

“We always ensure that the client is made comfortable during the meeting; have water and tissues to hand and try not to interrupt them when they are in their flow. Usually client’s go off on tangents and you have to steer them back. Having a pre-prepared list of questions in front of you, reassures the client that the questions being asked are necessary to the case. Internal communication is paramount – our client does not want to repeat their story to multiple people, so how we process this information within our team is one of the main priorities when handling such cases.  

“The terminology we use is carefully considered; being self aware of words or phrases is vital. A question asked in the wrong tone could be perceived as attributing blame to the victim and we regularly train our solicitor’s on how to pose a question in a truly objective manner.” 

Ramsdens Solicitors have a similar approach: 

At Ramsdens it is important that we fully understand the depths to which victims of sexual abuse and domestic abuse are affected to ensure we are able to provide appropriate advice and help to meet their needs. We appreciate it can be a very distressing situation for a victim to seek family law advice or advice on a civil claims as they often feel they have to re-live the events of abuse which they have suffered. 

To provide a Witness Statement to a Solicitor or the Police can be upsetting and therefore it is important as a legal representative that we work with other professionals to ensure they have involvement and support from all parties who are able, for example those from local domestic abuse charities and support workers. 

These individuals and organisations can build a trusted relationship and will continue to work with survivors beyond any legal proceedings, as of course their need does not end here.

Both Helen Thewlis, Head of Family Law and Natalie Marrison, Head of Abuse at Ramsdens Solicitors ensure that they and their team members have a close working relationship with charities who focus on abuse within their localities, including sexual and domestic abuse to both adults and children.

“We ensure both of us and our teams receive training and support from charities who focus on abuse that is specific to our client base. This ensures that we all gain as much knowledge and understanding of how to recognise sexual and domestic abuse, and assist those victims in a sensitive manner so that they feel fully supported.”  

“It is important that we are able to safely signpost victims of sexual abuse and domestic abuse where they may need alternative housing, counselling or other services.”

Experience in the area will finitely help any solicitor, and universities often promote pro-bono work to students where they will work with domestic abuse and violence victims 

Manisha Hurchurn, an associate in the Family Team at Mackrell.Solicitors, told us: 

“Representing victims who have suffered domestic abuse requires much more than a sound knowledge of the law; a higher and bespoke level of empathy and compassion is a must, coupled with the ability to advise on the legal framework and options, amidst a cloud of emotion and turmoil. 

“Receiving previous training from a charity working with domestic abuse within the LGBTQ community was a real eye-opener into the very different considerations and approaches that lawyers should be mindful of. The issue of being “outed” to the community, or even worse, family, friends or employers is one that family lawyers must be alive to and this extends beyond a victim’s sexuality or chosen gender being exposed and can also be relevant to their HIV status. Having represented LGBTQ victims of abuse, I know that such issues are commonplace and require an added level of sensitivity. 

“A very important lesson learned from the training I received focused on how to address a victim of abuse from the LGBTQ community and being aware of the nuances that simply do not exist within a “normal” caseload. Having the confidence to simply ask them, rather than getting it wrong, second-guessing what it is appropriate or politically correct, is key and will help in gaining and building trust; a feature that is imperative to a client-lawyer relationship involving domestic abuse.” 

We would love to know your thoughts on whether courses should be made more readily available on how to best support victims of domestic and sexual abuse. 

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