People accused of domestic violence could be prevented from cross-examining their alleged victims in family proceedings, the government has confirmed, days after the most senior family judges in England and Wales repeated concerns.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice told the Gazette that family judges already have powers to protect vulnerable witnesses in court, including intervening to prevent inappropriate questioning, and ordering video links, protective screens and intermediaries.
‘However, we recognise more needs to be done, which is why we are working with the judiciary to consider additional protections,’ the spokesperson added.
Last month Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division, called for a bar on domestic violence victims being cross-examined by the alleged perpetrators in court. The practice is not permitted in criminal courts.
The ministry confirmed it has undertaken research on cross-examination, focusing on how judges currently manage such cases. The findings are being used to inform the development of proposals for a statutory framework of measures to protect vulnerable parties and witnesses in family courts.
Philip Scott, chair of family group Resolution’s domestic abuse committee, said family court decisions are just as serious for children and parents as criminal cases, and the same protections should apply.
Scott added: ‘If court findings are not made because a parent can’t face questions from an abusive former partner, then they and their children will remain at risk.’
A report published by the Law Society’s children and vulnerable witnesses working group in 2014 noted that instances of alleged perpetrators cross-examining alleged victims was happening ‘more and more frequently’, with abuse proven in many cases. Suggestions to tackle the problem included setting up a body of registered intermediaries and a family court duty solicitor scheme.
Last year the ministry began a review of legal aid in domestic violence cases as part of efforts to gather data.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which came into effect in April 2013, removed legal aid from the majority of private family law matters. However, applicants are granted legal aid for cases where they can prove the incidence or risk of domestic violence or child abuse through a range of prescribed forms of evidence.
However, Charity Women’s Aid, in its Nineteen Child Homicides report last year, said there were still many cases in which the necessary evidence under the government’s Domestic Violence Gateway was either unavailable or unobtainable. As a result, victims of domestic abuse disputing contact were forced to become litigants in person, facing the potential consequence of being cross-examined by the alleged perpetrator.
The charity was praised by Munby for its efforts to raise matters concerning vulnerable witnesses to wider public attention.