VULNERABLE Scottish children are being forced into contact with abusive parents by family courts, shocking new research has revealed.

The Sunday Herald has been passed details from a study by the Centre for Research into Families and Children at Edinburgh University which shows 8% of children in contact disputes in family courts in Scotland are compelled to visit or stay with a parent who is alleged to have committed domestic abuse.

The findings have caused outrage, with calls going out for urgent change to the family court system, including the establishment of special "Domestic Abuse Courts".

Details of children being compelled to spend time with parents accused of abuse emerged in a report by Dr Kirsteen Mackay which explored the experience of children in custody battles in Scotland. In any year, an estimated 185 children in Scotland are being pushed via the courts into contact with potential dangerous parents.

Her research also showed that far from the system "being biased against dads", the reverse may be true, with the system favouring fathers over mothers.

A Scottish Government spokesperson responded to the study by saying there was already "work taking place on how the systems around contact where domestic abuse is involved could be improved". These include plans for specialist risk assessments to be piloted in the family court in Edinburgh.

Neil Bibby, Scottish Labour shadow minister for children and young people called on the Scottish Government to "urgently address these issues". Labour, he said, would like to see the establishment of Domestic Abuse Courts in Scotland, which would have a specialist understanding of children's welfare.

The study, Hearing Children in Court Disputes Between Parents, called for more specialised training for sheriffs, court reporters and solicitors in dealing with children. These calls were supported by Scottish family lawyers including Linda George, who said: "Training is crucial. There really isn't any."

Although 8% of children are forced into contact with an abusive parent, many more children have experience of parental abuse before the contact stage. Mackay said in half of all cases where contact between the non-resident father and child had broken down, it had done so because of physical violence or threats, including assault on the mother, verbal threats to the mother, threats to kill and threats to abduct the child.

Of the minority of families that end up before a sheriff over contact arrangements, the views of children are heard in only half the cases. There is a danger, Mackay says, that this proportion will continue to fall as the system of court reporters is under review, and considered expensive.

Mackay found when a child said they did not want to see a parent, or wanted to see a parent less, the child, in most cases, was forced into contact. Mackay said this was because the child's wishes were "in direct conflict with the assumption [by the system] that children benefit from ongoing contact with both parents".

David Gray, a team leader in early intervention for families in Glasgow, said: "Where it has been clearly established that there has been a history of violence, abuse and intimidation, there should be an assumption in a court that contact would not be in the child's best interest."

Domestic abuse, Gray said, did not have to be suffered by children themselves to have a traumatising impact on them.

Gray has spent 10 years working with families and said: "On quite a number of occasions what the children were worried about was not necessarily directed towards them, but often at their other parent, and there was something that had made them unsettled and not safe when they went into a situation of being on their own with the non-resident parent."

Fathers' rights campaigners questioned the study's findings that fathers are not discriminated against by courts. Ian Maxwell of Families Need Fathers said: "This study suggests that fathers are more likely to be listened to than mothers.

"Most fathers we speak to would disagree strongly that conclusion."

He added: "As well as finding out the views of children in such cases, the sheriff also has to consider whether allegations of domestic violence or child abuse can be substantiated."

Her study, Mackay said, indicates that further research is needed into whether the system is biased against mothers.

It threw up a disparity between how mothers and fathers were looked upon by the courts. Mothers were almost always not given contact when children said they did not want to see them.

Mackay's interviews with sheriffs and lawyers revealed a legal profession that tended to assume a child's views simply reflect the anxieties and feelings of the parent he or she lives with.