It is estimated that 1.9 million people in the UK suffer from domestic abuse every year. With complaints soaring since the start of the pandemic, the High Court has recently provided guidance on dealing with domestic abuse cases in the Family Court.
Re B-B (domestic abuse: fact-finding) (Rev 1)  EWHC 108 (Fam) concerned a 27-year-old woman and her 34-year-old former partner. The father had applied for a child arrangements order in respect of their four-year-old daughter, and both parents had made cross-allegations of abuse against the other.
Following a five-day hearing, Mr Justice Cobb found that the father had “gaslit” the mother by repeatedly alleging that she had bipolar disease “in an attempt to characterise her to third parties as mentally unstable and/or unreliable.” The judge went on to say that this damaged the mother’s self-confidence and self-esteem and caused her to doubt her own mental health and sanity. At the time, the father was a mental health nurse, which the judge said gave greater credibility to his unfounded claims.
The judge gave guidance for domestic abuse cases, which in layman’s terms can be summed up as:
- Examining the evidence in "clusters" makes it easier to see whether patterns of behaviour emerged.
- Delay in hearing the evidence compromises the quality of it and takes its toll on the parties.
- Flexible arrangements are needed. Here, a ‘hybrid’ hearing worked well, with the mother attending court to give evidence in person whilst the father appeared by video link. This was then reversed when the father gave his evidence.
- The parties cannot litigate every issue between them. Submissions and oral evidence must be limited to that which the court needs to determine the issue.
- The evidence of the parties themselves is almost always far more valuable than the evidence of supporting witnesses.
- Judicial continuity is important in domestic abuse cases, as it enhances the efficient and sympathetic management of the process.
The term “gaslighting” derives from the 1944 film, in which a husband manipulated his wife into thinking she had a mental illness by dimming their gas-fuelled lights and telling her that she is hallucinating.
The Family Courts have historically been slow to recognise psychological (or invisible) abuse or to acknowledge how much damage it can cause, so this important judgment provides welcome reassurance to victims and is a positive step forward.
"An abusive relationship is invariably a complex one in which the abused partner often becomes caught up in the whorl of abuse, losing objective sense of what was/is acceptable and unacceptable in a relationship. Like many abused partners, the mother in this case became immunised to the emotional volatility of the damaging relationship which she saw as normal and acceptable; like many abused partners, she clung to what she knew."