The president of the Family Division has berated the state of equipment in family courts, including his own court in London's Royal Courts of Justice.
In his latest View from the president's chambers, Sir James Munby said video-links in 'too many' family courts are a disgrace, 'prone to the link failing and with desperately poor sound and picture quality'.
He said his own court - court 33 - at the Royal Courts of Justice had no video-link facilities.
’When, recently, I needed a screen in my court, the only workable solution was found to be the careful placing in the jury box - relic of the days when divorce suits were tried before juries - of a vast and very heavy wooden screen which required a number of porters to install it,' he recalled.
’On one recent occasion when, having moved to another court in the RCJ, I used a video link, everyone and everything appeared on screen in such a bright blue shade as to remind me of [the film] Avatar. On another recent occasion everything on screen appeared bathed in that green translucent glow one associates with underwater photography.’
Munby used his latest update to highlight the fact that progress to address the needs of children and vulnerable witnesses in family proceedings had been too slow, repeating his call for urgent action.
The rules and practice directions recommended by the working group he set up two years ago, were still not in place, despite hopes they would be by the end of 2015, he said.
Research conducted by the Ministry of Justice into private law cases where the court was faced with the prospect of an alleged perpetrator seeking to cross-examine an alleged victim of domestic violence remains unpublished. Correspondence and statements from the ministry had shown no suggestion of legislation in relation to additional protections.
'I do not want to have to start 2018 with a further call to action,' Munby said.
At the end of last year, there was ’depressingly little to show for over two years’ hard pounding’, he added.
However, he predicted ’things may now be changing’. Earlier this month, justice minister Sir Oliver Heald told MPs that the lord chancellor had requested urgent advice on how to end the practice of alleged perpetrators of domestic violence from cross-examining their victims in the family court.
Munby stated his ambition was that ’everything necessary is in place by the end of 2017. This is do-able - if, but only if, there is the appropriate sense of urgency and commitment’.
He added: ’I understand government to be indeed moving forward with the speed and urgency indicated by Sir Oliver. That is very welcome. A crucial stage will be when draft clauses for a bill are published.’
However, he said ministers’ timetable on issues concerning children in family proceedings was ‘not as clear as might be wished’.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said the justice secretary was clear that protections for vulnerable witnesses, including domestic violence victims, must improve.
The spokesperson added: 'Family judges can already intervene to prevent inappropriate questioning, and order video-links, protective screens and intermediaries.
'But more must be done, which is why we are urgently working with the president and other senior judges to consider additional protections.'
The ministry has carried out research on cross-examination 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.