The president of the family division has criticised the government for ‘remaining unwilling or unable’ to say when it will reintroduce legislation to prevent alleged perpetrators of domestic abuse from cross-examining alleged victims in court.
Sir James Munby, who retires this summer, told law students in Edinburgh this week that he was pleased when clauses effecting this were included in last year's Prisons and Courts Bill. Munby pointed out that, over a decade ago, a judge in the family division highlighted the fact that judges in family cases lack the power to prevent a practice that is forbidden in criminal cases.
Munby has long advocated the reform. He said: 'As can readily be appreciated, such cross-examination lends itself to abuse, not least the abuse that the court has to stand by, effectively powerless, while the abuse continues in court and, indeed, as part of the court process.'
The Prisons and Courts bill fell victim to the general election last year.
Munby quoted from a 'damning' judgment handed down in 2017 by Mr Justice Hayden, who described the inability of a judge to prevent a victim from being cross-examined by their alleged perpetrator as 'a stain on the reputation of our family justice system'. Munby said the case for reforming this 'stain' was overwhelming. 'There is only one possible argument: it is the right thing to do. So why not do it? Or is the time no longer ripe?' he concluded.
Munby, in a lengthy speech, criticised the government for failing to act on the Law Commission's recommendation to reform the law in relation to cohabitants' rights. He also called for the 'absurdly over-detailed and over-long rules and practice directions' which govern family court processes, to be revamped. He said: 'The rules, which are surprisingly rarely consulted by lawyers, and are incomprehensible to lay people, are simply not fit for purpose. Even drastic pruning will not suffice; we have to throw them away and start again.'