Victims of domestic abuse should not endure the trauma of being cross-examined by their abusers in court, a national charity has recommended in a study on child deaths.
Women’s Aid’s report, Nineteen Child Homicides, tells the stories of 19 children who were killed by a parent who was also a perpetrator of domestic abuse, in circumstances relating to child contact.
This is the charity’s second report. Its Twenty-nine Child Homicides report, published in 2004, gave details of 29 children in 13 families who were killed between 1994 and 2004.
In its latest publication, the charity said cases it reviewed from January 2005 to August 2015 ‘demonstrate failings that need to be addressed to ensure that the family courts, Child and Family Courts Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), children’s social work and other bodies actively minimise the possibility of further harm to women and children’.
The report states that the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which came into force in April 2013, was one of the ‘major’ changes to the family justice system that ‘compound the barriers often faced by survivors of domestic abuse and the increasingly complex and arduous routes to safe child contact.
The act ‘has severely curtailed eligibility for legal aid in private family law cases’, the report states.
‘Although legal aid is available for court proceedings where a party can produce specified evidence of domestic abuse (referred to as the Domestic Violence Gateway), there are many cases in which the necessary evidence under the [gateway] is either unavailable or unobtainable, so that victims of domestic abuse disputing contact are forced to become litigants in person.
‘As a consequence, survivors find themselves being cross-examined by the perpetrator of domestic abuse, or by the perpetrator’s barrister, and they may also have to cross-examine the perpetrator themselves.
‘This leaves women in a very vulnerable position where they may not be able to have access to a fair hearing.’
The charity recommends that the Ministry of Justice and family court judiciary ensure domestic abuse survivors representing themselves in court as litigants in person ‘will not be questioned by their abuser, or in turn have to question their abuser’.
Women’s Aid chief executive Polly Neate (pictured) said there was a ‘misguided belief’ within the family courts and among judges that ‘because a relationship has ended, so has the domestic abuse’.
Neate said: ‘Survivors frequently report to us that they and their children are re-victimised by their abusers, even after separation, through the family court process.
‘This trauma makes it extremely difficult for the non-abusive parent to advocate clearly and effectively for the safety of their child.’
Neate said protection measures were in place in the criminal courts to give victims ‘fair’ access to justice. ‘This is not the case in the family courts.’
The charity has also unveiled a new campaign, entitled ‘Child First’, calling on the family courts and government to put childrens’ safety ‘back at the heart of all decisions made by the family court judiciary’.