Victims of domestic abuse are still being cross-examined by alleged perpetrators in the family courts despite the ‘appalling practice’ being banned by the Domestic Abuse Act, women’s charities and solicitors have told the lord chancellor.
Women’s Aid, Rights of Women, Centre for Women’s Justice, Ben Hoare Bell’s Cris McCurley and Jenny Beck, co-chair of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, are among 28 signatories to a letter urging Dominic Raab to review legal aid fees to ensure a sufficient number of lawyers are available to step in and conduct cross-examination.
The letter says the Domestic Abuse Act, which came into force last year, changed the law so that if there is a conviction, protection order or evidence of domestic abuse and either party is unrepresented, the family and civil courts must consider whether there is another way for cross-examination to take place or for evidence to be obtained. If there is no alternative, a qualified legal representative will be appointed to conduct the cross examination.
However, the signatories are concerned that victims are still being cross-examined by the alleged perpetrator.
The letter says: ‘Firstly, the ban only applies to new cases - meaning that victims already engaged in family court proceedings cannot access this protection. On average, it is currently taking over 11 months for private law children cases to reach a final order - and we know many women wait much longer than this.
‘Secondly, the Ministry of Justice has set the fees that legal representatives can charge for this work at a rate which is not competitive. Anecdotally, concerns have been raised that not enough qualified legal representative are therefore signing up. Significant concerns have been raised from professional bodies about the safety and effectiveness of the scheme, in light of limited funding for and availability of training for this challenging work.
‘Finally, the Ministry of Justice is not monitoring or evaluating the implementation of the ban at all. How can victims trust that it is working to keep them safe?’
The government is urged to review legal aid fees and ensure the ban applies to all cases.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: ‘Victims of domestic abuse should not have to face the ordeal of cross-examination by their abusers in court which is why we changed the law and put a stop to this awful practice.’
The department said it will respond to the letter in due course but pointed out that hundreds of lawyers have signed up to become qualified legal representatives in these cases.
This article is now closed for comment.