Is It Time To Change The Domestic Violence Law?
A recent article in the Guardian told us about a stark difference between the way victims of domestic abuse are treated by the Family Courts in comparison to when they are involved as a witness in criminal proceedings.
The most surprising difference is that in the Family Courts a victim of domestic violence can be subjected to cross examination by their ex-partner. After gathering the strength to leave a violent relationship the current Court process arguably then places victims back into harms way, placing them under emotional and psychological distress. Some people have come forward to highlight the injustice this creates. In one case, a victim was cross examined by her violent ex partner for two hours, despite the fact he had been issued with a Restraining Order by the Criminal Courts. This Restraining Order prevented the ex-partner from making any contact with his victim. Why, therefore, was he was allowed to interrogate her in a situation where the Court was determining if he should have contact with his child.
Guidance given to our Courts says that victims of violence are likely to find direct cross-examination by their alleged abuser frightening and intimidating, and recommends that it may be more appropriate for the Judge or Magistrates to conduct the questioning instead in order to make sure both parties are able to give their best evidence. But, is this happening in practice? Certainly in our local Courts in Plymouth, Torquay and Exeter, our experience is that Judges and Magistrates are very careful to protect victims of domestic abuse during Court proceedings. This includes putting screens in place if requested so victims do not have their ex-partner within their sight. In some cases it can also mean allowing victims to give their evidence from a different Court room or even a different Court building by video link. Our local Judges also regularly avoid situations where victims are asked questions by perpetrators and will attempt to ask any relevant questions themselves instead.
In 2016 the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Domestic Violence launched a report highlighting the urgent need for reform, calling for an immediate end to survivors of domestic abuse being cross-examined by, or having to cross examine, their abusers in the family court. Jess Phillips MP, chair of this group called for the government to address the issue as a matter of urgency. In early 2017 the Justice Secretary, Liz Truss MP, has since set up a review to consider the introduction of a ban on perpetrators of domestic abuse directly cross examining their victims in the Family Court. As a result, the issue has already been raised in the House of Commons and Ministers have indicated an agreement to introduce the necessary legislation.
A reform in the law is certainly required and will no doubt be welcomed by all those affected by domestic violence. Fortunately, our experience is that local Courts are very supportive of victims of domestic abuse. At Wolferstans we have a large team which includes three Solicitors with specialist accreditation for working with and advising victims of domestic abuse and assisting them with legal proceedings.
If you are concerned about any of the issues highlighted here, or you are a victim of domestic violence and wish to obtain legal advice, please call us on 01752 663295 to speak to a member of our family team who will be happy to help you.