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President of the Family Division lecture on child abuse

The development of our understanding in the past half century


29 November 2019
President of the Family Division lecture on child abuse

Sir Andrew McFarlane, the President of the Family Division, gave the inaugural Baroness Butler-Sloss Family Law Lecture at the University of Exeter in November. Entitled ‘If only we had known then what we know now’, the lecture set out the history of our understanding of child abuse and sought to demonstrate just how far this understanding has developed during the past half century.

Sir Andrew noted that almost every significant development has occurred in direct response to a particular case, largely involving the appalling treatment of a particular child. He discussed physical and sexual abuse, noting that the taboo surrounding child sexual abuse took longer to break than that relating to physical abuse – it was not until the 1980s that child sexual abuse was recognised as a serious problem for the first time. He also considered the development in our understanding of emotional abuse as a distinct issue.

Sir Andrew went on to say that, from the perspective of a family judge, ‘the category of abuse, whatever it may be, is of secondary importance to the harm, or likelihood of harm that the impact of such abuse may have on the particular child before the court’. This shift away from looking at the behaviour of the perpetrator to instead considering the harm to the victim took place over time and is reflected in the Children Act 1989, where the focus is on ‘significant harm’. The concept of harm has subsequently continued to evolve, Sir Andrew noted, as courts face modern day issues. He concluded by noting that, despite all the progress that has been made, ‘in the future we will undoubtedly know more, and understand more, than we do now’.

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