In the past few years there has been much debate over the treatment of victims of domestic abuse in Court proceedings. The Criminal Courts have made important changes to ensure the victims of abuse are protected during criminal proceedings but the Family Courts have not implemented similar changes.
At present, if a perpetrator of abuse does not instruct a lawyer to represent them in Court proceedings then they will go before the Court in person. If the case progresses to cross examination then there is a risk that the perpetrator of the alleged abuse is able to question and potentially interrogate their victim about the alleged abuse. A Judge would do their utmost to limit the occasions when a perpetrator of the abuse can question their victim and will closely monitor the line of questioning, however the reality is that there is a genuine risk that the victim may be further abused under the cloak of Court proceedings.
In 2016 Women’s Aid published a report that dealt with the damaging effect this type of cross examination can have on a victim. It reported that many victims felt that their welfare and safety was being jeopardised by being interrogated about the abuse by the perpetrator. Some felt that the perpetrator of the abuse was being allowed to treat them in a degrading manner during cross examination and that further abuse was being allowed to continue through the Family Court process.
The report called for the Government and all Family Courts to make the court process safer for victims of domestic abuse. The report was part of the Child First Campaign which sought to ensure that the safety of children remains at the centre of all decisions made by Family courts.
Following this report, Women’s Aid were able to secure a commitment from the Government to create a new law banning alleged perpetrators of abuse from being able to cross-examine their victims in Family court proceedings. In February 2017 the Prisons and Court Bill provided for amendments to be made to current legislation to ensure that anyone with a current conviction for a domestic violence offence was prevented from cross examining their victim during Family court proceedings.
The Commons Public Bill Committee were scheduled to consider the Bill in April 2017 however following the announcement of the snap General Election on the 18th April 2017, the Bill was not able to progress and fell when the Parliament dissolved on the 3rd May 2017.
Despite this initial set back, the Queen’s Speech delivered on the 21st June 2017 made a commitment to introduce a Court’s Bill to reform the court systems and address the treatment of domestic violence victims during Court proceedings.
Following a consultation period from March to May 2018, Parliament is to debate the issue of the progress on protecting victims of domestic abuse on the 18th July at Westminster Hall.
Ahead of the debate Penny Scott, the Chair of the Family Law Committee at The Law Society, Margaret Heathcote, the National Chair of Resolution and Katie Ghose, the Chief Executive of Women’s Aid wrote a joint letter to the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, David Gauke MP calling for the Government urgently to ban cross examination of victims by their abusers in Family courts. The letter highlighted the fact that the perpetrator of the abuse interrogating their victim is in itself abusive.
It is with great hope that the Government will now take immediate action in respect of this long running debate to ensure that in the future, victims of domestic abuse will not have to experience further abuse in Family Court proceeding designed to protect them.