“Refuges are designed to be both physically and psychologically safe environments for adult and child victims of domestic abuse. They are life-saving services” (paragraph 34.1 of the judgment in Re P (Service on Parent in a Refuge)  EWHC 471 (Fam]). Due to the nature of the services provided by refuges, the address of any refuge is highly confidential. Residents of a refuge sign an agreement not to disclose the address and risk eviction from the refuge if they do so. Further, all members of staff, volunteers, trustees, and contractors sign a confidentiality agreement as part of their contract of employment/agreement which states that, disclosure of an address of a refuge is likely to amount to gross misconduct and, therefore, dismissal.
Given the high level of confidentiality of such addresses, service of a parent residing in a refuge can be difficult. In the case of Re P (Service on Parent in a Refuge)  EWHC 471 (Fam), the Court were dealing with such a matter.
Disclosure orders had been made, requiring two members of staff (one at a refuge and another working for Latin America Women’s Aid “LAWA”) to provide information within their knowledge or control relating to a child’s whereabouts. In response to that order, LAWA wrote to the Court detailing concerns regarding the disclosure orders. LAWA explained that service of a Court order on the parent residing in the refuge would result in them immediately being moved to another refuge with the child as the current refuge would no longer be considered safe – the address having been compromised. They also made it known that it would leave other residents of the refuge at risk.
Whilst the proceedings in respect of child arrangements were transferred back to the Central Family Court, the High Court retained the consideration of the issue of service upon a resident of a refuge. Directions were made for the positions of LAWA, the IMECE Women’s Centre and Islington LBC Refuge to be considered at a further hearing and Women’s Aid, Refuge and the Secretary of State for Justice were invited to intervene. The Court were to consider the following three issues of principle:
- The arrangements for the service of orders on those residing in a refuge and any differences that arise when orders are made under the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court or the Family Court;
- Whether, pending consideration of this issue by the Family Procedure Rules Committee, interim arrangements can be made to serve proceedings on those in refuge in a manner that balances the needs of the court and the safety of those residing in refuge;
- The costs and proportionality of any arrangements, present or suggested.
In advance of the hearing, the Secretary of State provided detailed written submissions which were largely accepted by all parties. It was considered by all that the issue of service on the resident of a refuge should be considered by the Family Procedure Rule Committee and the judgment records that a formal request would be made of the committee to take this issue up. The focus of submissions was, therefore, on what provision may be made in the interim.
The Secretary of State’s submissions started from the basis that disclosure and location orders normally require disclosure of information to a Court or Court Officer, rather than the Applicant, which then should ensure that the confidential and sensitive nature of the information regarding location is preserved.
The rules for service (FPR 6.23-6.39) provide the methods of service that are permissible as personal service, first class post (document exchange or other service which provides for delivery on the next business day in accordance with PD6A), leaving it at a place specified in Rule 6.26 or fax or email in accordance with PD6A. The party preparing the document is to serve it, save where a rule or practice direction provides that the Court will serve it or the Court directs otherwise. Rule 6.26 provides that a party must give an address for service, which can be the business address of a solicitor acting for them or a residential or business address of the party. The Court can direct alternative methods of service where there is good reason to.
The Secretary of State considered that the Court may make an order for alternative means of or location of service in respect of those residing in refuges on the basis that residence in refuge is a “good reason” for doing so, provided that steps are taken to ensure the order is brought to the Respondent’s attention.
On behalf of LAWA, Refuge and Women’s Aid Foundation of England (“WAFE”), additional submissions were made. Those included specific considerations which apply where a party is residing at refuge. The list was considered useful by the Court and was reproduced in the judgment. For brevity, it will not be reproduced for this article but would be useful when considering service upon a party residing in refuge and can be found at paragraph 34 of the judgment. It was drawn to the Court’s attention that most, if not all, refuges operate a PO Box address which could be utilised.
Sir Andrew McFarlane P, in giving judgment, drew matters together and provided guidance (pending more detailed consideration by the Family Procedure Rule Committee) to be applied when the Court was considering service on an individual who is thought to be residing in refuge:
- The Court should only require personal service at the address of the refuge in circumstances which are truly exceptional and urgent.
- In all other cases, an alternative means of service, as sanctioned by FPR 2010 Part 6 should be used, which could include:
- Personal service at an alternative location
- Service on the party’s legal representative
- Service via post at a PO box or office address provided by the refuge for this purpose
- Service via email and/or text and/or WhatsApp or other electronic messaging service in circumstances where the resident is known to use these means of communication
- Service by post via a third party whom the court is confident will provide the resident of the refuge with the documents
- When service is via a PO box or office provided by the refuge, the CEO or director of the refuge should be required to confirm that any material thus served will be promptly brought to the attention of the person to be served.
- The Court should be mindful at all times of its duty under the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, Section 63 and the Family Procedure Rules, Part 3A and PD3AA to make participation directions with respect to an individual who is, or is at risk of being, a victim of domestic abuse
- When considering arrangements for service on a person who is residing at refuge who is a migrant person, the Court should pay additional attention to the need to ensure that any orders are appropriately translated
- The alleged perpetrator or their representative must never, themselves, personally serve a resident at a refuge.
- Where, because of the exceptional and urgent nature of the circumstances, it is considered necessary for the court to order personal service of court documents on a resident at a refuge, the court must be alive to the factors set out at paragraph 34 of the judgment and should consider contacting the CEO or the director of the refuge to make appropriate arrangements.
- Where personal service is to be made at a refuge, it should be undertaken by a court bailiff or the Tipstaff and, where possible, using female officers in plain clothing.
- The address of a refuge must never be disclosed to the alleged perpetrator or to their solicitor, even if an undertaking is offered.
- Any formal contact with a refuge, and any orders requiring information, should engage with the CEO or director of the refuge. It will never be appropriate for individual refuge staff members to be required by court order to disclose confidential information.
This judgment provides clear and detailed guidance on how to address matters of service upon individual residents in a refuge in the interim until such time as the Family Procedure Rule Committee has been able to consider this issue. It will be interesting to see how this area develops as on a practical level such situations can create anxiety to clients facing this issue. Becket Chambers can provide legal advice and assistance on those facing this challenge.