Charlotte Budd’s abuse began when she was pregnant with her daughter. It was a time when things were changing in her household, and her husband became increasingly angry and domineering.
“There were some circumstances around it. My parents had lost their home, and I became financially reliant on him. There was a shift in power and control. Things escalated very quickly. By the time my daughter was born, there were frequent threats of violence and dark mood swings and a lot of coercive control,” she says.
There was also the issue of her perpetrator’s problems with addiction. “He was an addict in the past, but he had been clean and sober for a long time. Then he basically relapsed. When my daughter was about eight days old, he had this really aggressive outburst and went missing for days on end, and when he came back he was a real mess. I had never seen anything like it, and I was incredibly naïve about things like that. He had taken crack cocaine and heroin,” she says.
Domestic Abuse and the Family Court System
When her daughter was three months’ old, Charlotte’s abuser physically attacked Charlotte. The police were called, and he was arrested. “I took the opportunity to change the locks and didn’t allow him to come back. I was really determined to look for jobs and to go out and provide for her on my own,” she says.
What Charlotte didn’t know then was that her ordeal was far from over. She was subjected to post-separation abuse. Her abuser would refuse to pay child maintenance, or, on the rare occasions that he did, used those payments as a form of control. Sometimes, he was calm. Other times, he was explosive. He attacked Charlotte for a second time when she was holding her daughter. On another occasion he threatened to kill her. “So I went back to the police and I decided to stop contact because it had become dangerous for my daughter to be around him,” she says.
Charlotte entered the family court system, expecting that she would be supported in her decision to end contact between her abuser and her daughter, or at the very least, be able to establish only limited contact. He was a drug addict, after all, and had been arrested by the police. She had kept a journal of the abuse she had suffered, recorded evidence, and had accumulated witnesses prepared to provide evidence. It should have been an open and shut case. Instead, Charlotte went through a two-and-a-half-year nightmare, one that continues to some respects today, because her abuser still retains rights to see her daughter.
The magistrates involved in her case had little to no education around domestic abuse, and because Charlotte’s abuser had cut her off from any financial support, she had few resources to rely on. At the time, she did not have access to Legal Aid, and she had to represent herself in court. In contrast, her abuser had a barrister to represent him.
“I was treated like an inconvenience. They didn’t have any knowledge of domestic abuse or trauma. They didn’t even do a drug test, and they ignored all the evidence that I had, witnesses and recorded evidence. They told me that if it was that bad, I would have reported him to the police more often. The victim blaming was awful,” she says.
She describes being like a ‘deer in headlights’ as she was forced to confront her own abuser in court. “I didn’t have a clue, and I was taken advantage of at every step. I assumed someone would tell me what my rights were. I remember saying, ‘I don’t know what questions to ask, could someone please help me?’. They would just ‘tut tut’ at me and say, ‘can you speak louder, we can’t hear you’.”
By the time the courts eventually requested a drug test, her abuser had shaved his head, and so the test could only date back a month. The damage had been done, and he was given access to their child.
“I think there are so many issues to address. There is a real lack of transparency, and there’s this idea that it always goes in the mother’s favour, but we know that the judicial system has never really been there for women. In fact, every type of judicial system is stacked against victims, it’s been an ongoing issue. The views of magistrates and judges and social workers become entrenched and are never really challenged. The government has been slow in forcing change,” she says.
Some change is occurring however, as the latest Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s report illustrates.
The Need for Reform
For Charlotte, who has been an active campaigner for reform of the family court system, it is not enough. In her case, decisions about contact were made by lay magistrates without legal training. “They just get given a book, and they have no understanding of domestic abuse as an issue in the first place. They see it as a family issue when it’s not, it’s abuse. There is this entrenched view of presumption of contact no matter what the circumstances.”
Charlotte’s daughter is now five, and most of the time she does not want to see her father. “It’s very difficult. He won’t put her needs first, and there’s ongoing post-separation abuse and controlling behaviour. I get threatened with being taken back to court every time I don’t comply with something he wants. I have even been threatened with enforcement orders. He’s a good example of someone who understands the system and knows how to use it,” she says.
Lessons for Employers
Charlotte wants to shine a spotlight on what can happen in these situations, so that employers understand what victims go through when they have to enter the court process, and also gain awareness around how victims can be retraumatised by the proceedings.
“Employers have to give some space to victims going through court. It is a long process, and they will need time off, they will need counselling, and also signposting to support services. There’s quite a lot of organisations providing free legal advice for women, but women don’t necessarily know about them. When you’re in that situation, your anxiety can be quite high, and you feel a bit scrambled, you don’t know where to turn. Sometimes it’s easier if someone can signpost you in the right direction,” she says.
For more information on domestic abuse and the family court system, please see:
Harm Panel Report, June 2020