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Increasing Pressure To Stop Abusers Interviewing Victims In Court

Increasing Pressure To Stop Abusers Interviewing Victims In Court

Justice secretary Liz Truss has ordered an emergency review to find the quickest way to ban perpetrators of domestic abuse from directly cross-examining family courts to change domestic abuse victim

their victims within the family court system. It is believed Ms Truss wants to bring the family courts in line with the criminal courts, where a change in the law has stopped the practice.

In family courts, judges are supposed to follow guidance, known as practice direction 12J, when handling cases in which domestic violence is cited as an issue. The guidance is designed to stop the direct interrogation of a former partner, requiring the judge to intervene instead.

However, research by Women’s Aid suggests that a quarter of victims with experience of the family court had been cross-examined by their violent or abusive former partner.

The research paper for Ms Truss will examine whether primary legislation is necessary to end perpetrator cross-examination, or whether it could be stopped through the provision of more legal aid.

Legal aid cuts said to be at root of greater opportunity for harassment

A study by the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence found that more than half (55%) of women had no access to special measures in the family courts, where 70% of separation and child contact cases involve some form of domestic violence. Meanwhile, cuts to legal aid in 2012 mean that growing numbers of men and women are representing themselves in court, thus increasing the opportunity for some men to use the process as part of their ongoing harassment, abuse and controlling behaviour. Figures released by the Ministry of Justice in October 2016 indicate that in 80% of family law cases, at least one of the parties was a litigant in person.

The head of England and Wales’ family courts, Sir James Munby, said family courts were lagging “woefully” behind criminal ones. In a statement, Sir James said he had been urging reform of the way in which vulnerable people give evidence in family proceedings since 2014, and had been disappointed by ministers’ “slow response” to the issue. He said reform should be “a matter of priority,” but added that “the judiciary cannot provide this, because it requires primary legislation and would involve public expenditure. It is therefore a matter for ministers.”

Existing loophole enables re-traumatising of victims, say campaigners

Campaigners and members of the judiciary have been calling on the justice secretary to close the loophole, which they say effectively allows abusers to re-traumatise their victims.

Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said that professionals in family courts, usually judges, often had an “appalling” lack of understanding of domestic abuse cases. “They don’t understand that domestic abuse very commonly, in fact routinely, continues after separation,” she told BBC Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour.

“If the last violent incident was a few months ago and the couple has separated, they just don’t see that as a potentially abusive situation. They don’t understand the impact of domestic abuse on children, they don’t understand coercive control,” she said.

Zoe Dronfield, who heads I Want My Mummy, a support group for victims of domestic violence going through the family court system, welcomed Ms Truss’s review, but cautioned that previous discussions had concluded without substantive action being taken.

“There is an epidemic of people affected by this, but because of the secrecy the family courts operate under and the gagging orders imposed, they are not heard,” she said.

Ministry of Justice acknowledges more needs to be done

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said family judges already have a range of powers to protect vulnerable witnesses in court, including being able to intervene to prevent inappropriate questioning and requesting the use of video links, protective screens and intermediaries.

“However, we recognise more needs to be done, which is why we are working with the judiciary to consider additional protections,” the spokesperson added.

Contact our experienced childcare and domestic violence solicitors

If you are suffering from domestic violence or domestic abuse, please contact IBB in confidence to arrange a meeting and protect yourself and your children: call us on 01895 207857.