The head of the Family Division has called for a bar on victims of domestic violence being cross-examined by the alleged perpetrators in court, criticising ministers’ ‘slow response’ to the pressing need for reform.
In a statement published on the judiciary’s website, division president Sir James Munby repeated his concern over the fact that people accused of domestic violence are able to cross-examine their alleged victims. The practice is not permitted in criminal courts.
Munby said: ‘Reform is required. I would welcome a bar. But the judiciary cannot provide this, because it requires primary legislation and would involve public expenditure. It is therefore a matter for ministers.’
With reform required ‘as a matter of priority’, Munby was ‘disappointed by how slow the response to these issues has been’. He welcomed ‘continuing’ efforts by domestic violence charity Women’s Aid ‘to bring these important matters to wider public attention’.
Munby’s statement was issued following an investigation by the Guardian newspaper which revealed women were being forced to face questioning in the family courts by men who had abused them.
However, the president first highlighted concerns in 2014, setting up a working group to look at the issue of children and vulnerable witnesses giving evidence in family proceedings.
He said last week: ‘I have made clear my view that the family justice system lags woefully behind the criminal justice system.’
Women's Aid chief executive Polly Neate said Munby's support marked 'a step forward' for the charity's Child First campaign to make the family court process safer for women and children survivors of domestic abuse.
Munby added that he will make decisions on Mr Justice Cobb’s review of practice direction 12J – which deals with child arrangements orders in cases involving alleged domestic violence and harm – ‘early’ this year.
Neate said the practice direction was not being upheld effectively by all family courts, which the charity highlighted in its Nineteen Child Homicides report last year.
She added: 'We are working closely with Mr Justice Cobb on his review to ensure that we drive the culture change needed to put children's safety back at the heart of the family courts.
'Currently, the desires of abusive parents for contact, and the culture of "contact at all costs" within family courts, are overriding the practice direction. This needs to be resolved as a matter of urgency, and we are pleased to be working on this matter with Mr Justice Cobb.'