*I am not a legal expert. This blog is based on my personal experiences, experiences of others, and information and advice I have received during the legal process.
Oh the joy of the family courts. Such a trigger happy place; triggering trauma responses in a survivor of abuse at every turn, it would seem.
We may naively enter this process thinking the law sees all and will sort out this mess, when what we really ought to be doing is preparing ourselves for the law having to sift through fact (our reality) and fiction (the abuser’s reality), and as we know, an abuser can tell one hell of a story.
The family court process is a major cause of re-traumatisation for survivors of domestic abuse. The abusive relationship has ended. We either left or were discarded, and have come to realise that the relationship was abusive. You think it is finally over. Then during the court process, we are subjected to being in close contact with our abuser, and listening to the half-truths and manipulations of the hellish relationship we have endured. What is arguably more damaging, is the family court often either does not recognise the dynamic as abusive or does not recognise the severity of the abuse and it's impact. Judgements or criticisms are made on the victim’s own behaviour. The outcome: the message the abuser has fed to the us for a long, long time – that it is all in our head, that it was not abuse, that it is all our fault – is inadvertently supported and re-emphasised by a third party; a Judge no less. It is somewhat of an understatement to say this is crushing to a survivor.
Moreover, the courts can be a major power tool for the abuser to continue to exert control and abuse (which is true for any type of abuse that has been experienced).
Being in their company.
In court you are going to be in close proximity with your ex. With the abuse and trauma that has been suffered, this is extremely difficult. I would have anxiety attacks at being in the same building in completely separate rooms to begin with.
Support. This is the number 1 thing that you need. When you are attending court, have someone go with you. A close friend, family member, new partner, whoever is going to give you support to just be in their company. If you have a solicitor / lawyer then great, but that is not the same as emotional support. If you don’t have anyone that can attend with you, then often local abuse charities will have someone who can attend as a befriender. Access this support whenever possible.
Ask to wait in a separate waiting room. When you enter the court you can discreetly ask an usher if there is a separate area you can wait in. I have never experienced being told ‘no’. If you don’t feel this is an option, generally you can wait just outside of the waiting room, but make sure you tell the usher so that you don’t miss being called into your hearing.
Create space in the court room. Family court rooms are pretty cosy. All one big happy family, right? If you have a lawyer, ask them to sit in the middle to create a human barrier. If you don’t, then try to leave an empty chair between you (which is where your representation would be sitting) to at least have some physical space.
Have an exit plan. Work out how you are leaving court after the hearing. Are you with a friend? Do you wait for your lawyer? Will you leave ASAP? Prepare yourself and stick to your plan. It’s easier to avoid being hoovered in by your abusive ex if you have a plan in your mind.
If you fear for your safety, there are other precautions that the court may put in place. They may also put a screen in position so that you don’t have to see you abuser in certain cases. This would be something to discuss with a legal advisor.
Fact findings and emotional abuse aren’t friends. Don’t be disheartened by this, because it is positive that your claims of abuse are being considered, but there are a couple of reasons why fact findings are potentially re-traumatising for survivors.
Limited allegations. In a fact finding, there is generally a seven incident limitation on what is allowed to be brought forward. It’s too time consuming otherwise. If you had seven incidents of physical or sexual abuse - even if only one incident were considered fact after the hearing - this may be enough to carry some weight. Seven incidents of emotional abuse? Not so much. We know that abuse is systematic, and that is none more crucial than when considering emotional abuse, because without the systematic pattern of behaviour, it could just be considered as the occasional bad fight that happens in ALL relationships. Not enough to prove abusive behaviour. Invalidation of abuse, likely to occur.
When it is your word against theirs, you will almost never find fact. You have to mentally prepare yourself for this. With emotional abuse, there is often no further evidence than the survivor’s account of events. That does not mean that you shouldn’t tell your story. And if the Judge does not find fact, it does not mean that they believed the abuser over you. Remember this. It simply means that it would be unreasonable to consider the abuser guilty due to lack of evidence. Anything to support your reality is needed here. Doctor’s letter. Therapist’s letter. Get in touch with local abuse charities. Witness accounts. Anything to collaborate with your story would be of benefit. But mentally prepare yourself that for the fact that it is rare that emotional or psychological abuse is identified in this process.
Your abuser may directly question you. Get your head around this. I’m lost for words that this is even possible, but sadly it is. If your ex does not have legal representation, they will question you about the alleged abusive incidents. There are trauma triggers going off left, right and centre here; I don’t know how to tackle it. But this is your time to raise your voice that has been taken from you for so long. Tell your truth. Tell it to the court. Tell it to your ex. This. Was. Abuse. In this moment, don’t worry about if it is found as fact. Just tell your truth. Don’t let them take it from you.
Judge holding you accountable.
It is highly destructive for a survivor to have an uninvolved third party rule over the relationship and decide that they are equally to blame. In a family court setting, there is likely to be at least some blame put on both parties. Unfortunately, by not holding an abuser fully accountable, the abuser’s reality - that they were entitled to behave that way - is reinforced. And this can be extremely traumatic. In the moment and in the aftermath.
It knocks it out of me, because I want to be validated by this authority. It feels like it would mean something. But the court strives to establish safe contact with both parents for the child, and to create a functioning agreement to prevent the need to return to court (which is a topic for debate as to whether this is really in the best interests of the child). Remind yourself, that your truth should not be based on what is found in court. And seek validation through other means; self-care, support, and getting informed on abuse.
It will physically and mentally drain you.
Be kind to yourself. There is no way to go through this process without feeling physically and mentally drained. Exhausted. And it’s OK that you feel that way. Many times abusers use the family courts to continue being abusive. You need your support network. You need to prepare for the fact it will impact you. Tell yourself each day that you are strong just for surviving, and feel empowered by your inner strength to be there and stand up for yourself, even when you are feeling weak.
Whilst your abusive ex may be trying to bring you down with court hearings, aim to restore some balance and build yourself up with something positive. You can start small. A relaxing bath, ten minutes a day to read (in peace!). Ten minutes of meditation. Or join a support group; start seeing a counsellor. You could start a new hobby: it can be deeply satisfying to develop a new skill after abuse. A sense that there is something that hasn’t be touched by your ex and evidence that, actually, you weren’t crushed because you continue to grow. Anything that is going to help to balance out your life, so that the focus is not so heavily on the tune your ex is playing, but more about what song you’re singing to drown it out.