Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird QC, has welcomed an emergency review of how to stop domestic abusers from using the family courts to continue persecuting their victims.
The review, ordered by Justice Secretary Liz Truss, is seeking the quickest way to ban perpetrators of domestic abuse from directly cross-examining their victims within the family court system.
It follows a campaign led by the Guardian and Women’s Aid figures which showed that one in four women questioned had experienced such cross-examination by their violent or abusive ex-partner.
Last week, Sir James Munby, the president of the family division, said he would welcome a ban on the practice, which is illegal in the criminal courts. But in a statement, he said any ban would require primary legislation and was a decision for ministers.
The senior judge said the family courts lagged behind the criminal courts and reform was needed as a matter of priority. He said he was disappointed at the slow response from ministers.
Dame Vera said: “Far too many victims of domestic abuse, who have found the strength to come forward, are let down by the secretive family court system. If family court hearings were held in public, the outcry at what goes on would mean that abusive partners would have been stopped long ago from cross examining their partners face-to-face, which is nothing short of continuing the intimidation and oppression they have faced in the relationship.
“As Sir James Munby implies, this issue has been known, in court and political circles, to be an outrage for some years and yet there has been no change.
“He thinks that primary legislation is needed but I compliment the Justice Secretary on setting up an emergency inquiry into whether that is needed or guidance or practice changes might suffice. It is certainly likely that urgent legal aid changes will be needed. In the criminal courts, where this has been unlawful for almost 20 years, the court can direct that a lawyer is instructed to do the cross examination, whatever the perpetrator wants, and can authorise legal aid to cover the cost.
“This issue has become critical because Liz Truss’s predecessors removed legal aid from all private family court proceedings. If there is domestic abuse, legal aid can be granted for the victim in a few cases but not for the perpetrator. Women’s organisations warned Kenneth Clarke that this would be one consequence of his wholesale cuts but he ignored them.
“This is rightly called an emergency because this behaviour must never again be tolerated by the courts. Judges need some urgent guidance about how to deal with cases in which such cross examination is going to occur, before this inquiry produces an outcome. Once there is a new way forward, they will also need guidance on early identification of alleged victims and perpetrators in family cases so that the new provisions are used for the right people. Whether there are accusations of domestic abuse or not, both parties must be allowed to put their full cases before the court for fair decision-making.
“This is only one example of how the family courts lag behind the criminal courts. It is equally urgent to extend all the ‘special measures’ that have been developed to protect vulnerable or intimidated witnesses in the criminal courts to victims in the family courts. These include the provision of safe ways in and out of the building, separate waiting areas and the ability to give evidence via television link. All or any of these can be allowed for any such witness on application to the judge at an early stage in the proceedings and a similar model can be created to fit the family court.”