Hopeful news today as we see the publication of a new draft bill that if passed will see judges in the family courts compelled to prevent perpetrators of abuse (alleged or otherwise) from cross-examining their victims in person.
What a long overdue and hugely needed reform.
The current position is that in private family law proceedings, litigants in person are allowed to cross-examine other parties in the case, including vulnerable or intimidated witnesses. Vulnerable witnesses are generally people with mental health issues or physical disability, and an intimidated witness refers to people whose evidence is likely to be "diminished due to fear or distress".
Such cross-examination which is inevitably going to cause victims huge distress often effectively amounts to a continuation of the original abuse. Having to be questioned in the witness box by the very person at whose hands they have suffered the original abuse is bound to impact on and in some cases compromise the quality of the evidence they are able to give. The prospect alone must surely deter some from going to court at all. place.
I have high hopes for a swift passage of this bill, not least due to the weight of research behind its provenance: the bills has come out of a report presenting the findings from an in-depth qualitative study including interviews with no less than 21 family judges. Whilst Women's Aid have criticised professionals in family courts as often have an "appalling" lack of understanding of domestic abuse cases, my own experience is that many may simply not have felt that they were able effectively to stop the coercian and abuse taking place in the name of 'a fair trial.
If the Prison and Courts Bill does reach the statute books, a new section 4B to the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 will be created which will specifically prohibit cross-examination by unrepresented litigants in person. With the rise in those representing themselves in court and ever-increasing challenge for the good management of the court process, this provision would be an absolutely invaluable protection and tool for all those involved.
Domestic abusers will no longer be able to cross-examine their former partners in family courts. Liz Truss will extend a ban which already exists in criminal courts. She ordered an emergency review into the practice following a campaign by victim support groups. Its part of the Prisons and Courts Bill which will see major changes to the prison system. Justice Minister Oliver Heald said: "Victims and &the most vulnerable are at the centre of changes which will help deliver swifter more certain justice for all." Ms Truss has been under pressure to reform the treatment of domestic abuse victims in family courts. Judges are supposed to follow guidance which is aimed at stopping an abusive partner from interrogating their ex. Women's Aid has said that professionals in family courts often have an "appalling" lack of understanding of domestic abuse cases.