A man has attacked his wife while representing himself in family court proceedings, highlighting security concerns as more people appear in court without a lawyer.
The Ministry of Justice confirmed that an incident took place during proceedings at an Essex court last week in a hearing about residence and visiting rights.
As the judge began to deliver their ruling, the father walked across the court and punched his wife several times in the head. He was restrained by court staff and arrested by police. At a magistrates' court hearing the man pleaded guilty to assault and will appear for sentencing at the Crown court later this month.
The man will also face contempt of court proceedings in London in a hearing before Sir James Munby, president of the family division, on Wednesday.
Lawyers raised concerns that the removal of legal aid for most family cases in April would increase the number of litigants in person and increase the tension in family law cases.
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: ‘Self-represented parties are not a new phenomenon - immediately prior to our legal aid changes about half of private law children’s cases involved them.’ She said: ‘Lawyers representing a party would not play a role in court security matters, and we have no evidence to suggest any increase in this type of incident since April.’
HM Courts & Tribunals Service said: ‘HMCTS takes the issue of security within courts extremely seriously and has a robust security and safety system to protect all court users and the judiciary. This system includes mandatory bag searches, metal detectors and surveillance cameras, as well as court security officers who have legislative powers to protect all those in the court building. The powers of the court security officers include the ability to restrain and remove people from the building should there be a need.'
A spokesman added: ‘Our security system is continually monitored to ensure that it is effective and proportionate, and mitigates against the risks faced.’
A Law Society spokesperson agreed that the case raised serious concerns. He said: 'We recognise that this situation can be very intimidating for people taking these actions. The law allows people to represent themselves and, while the judge can control excessive or intimidating behaviour and inappropriate questions, this will not stop the process being difficult and distressing.
'The abolition of legal aid for many of these proceedings, in the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, will make this more common. The Law Society and others with significant experience of domestic violence cases argued that this presented risks whereby defendants would be more likely to proceed without representation and would confront their victims in court.
'In this case, it is clearly wrong and deeply distressing to the alleged victim. We call on government to revisit rules governing the scope of legal aid in civil cases so that such situations can be avoided, for the sake of alleged victims and for the sake of justice.'