What practical changes in Family Courts could provide increased protections for victims of domestic abuse?
The much-lauded Domestic Abuse Bill has fallen at Committee Stage as a result of the pre-election pro-rogation, with no clear commitment for it to be carried forward into the next parliament. The purpose of the Bill was to increase awareness around domestic abuse, improve the experience of victims in navigating the justice system and in bringing perpetrators to justice, and to strengthen the support systems available to victims of abuse. With the future of the Bill uncertain, what practical changes could be implemented by Family Courts to improve the experience of the 2.5 million cases heard which involve domestic abuse victims in the court system?
One aspect of hearings in the Family Court which comes under voracious criticism is the facility for alleged abusers to cross-examine their victims in the court forum. It is acknowledged that such perpetrators may use the court system to further abuse and control, and allowing this practice to continue may increase the potential for emotional distress to a victim of domestic abuse. A Women’s Aid report in 2018 found that 24 percent of their respondents had been cross-examined by their abusive ex-partner in family court. It is hoped that any resurrected Domestic Abuse Bill will contain the same provisions to prevent this practice. However, in the intervening period, courts could look to limit the practice by requiring cross-examination questions to be submitted to the judge in advance, or by making use of some of the special measures available under the court’s case management powers detailed below.
At present, such measures are available under the court’s case management powers, but research has shown that 61% of cases which involve domestic abuse are not afforded such measures, and there is a lack of awareness on the part of the victims that such measures are available to them. Such measures may include using facilities such as screens, video links, separate entrances and exits from court and separate waiting rooms. While the now defunct Bill determined there should be a presumption that victims will make use of such measures, in the meantime courts can make use of these by clearer advertising of the availability of such measures and a more rigorous application of such measures in hearings where domestic abuse features. This will inevitably have an impact on an already overstretched court system, but given the expectation is that statutory measures to legislate along these lines are hopefully in the pipeline, courts could use this intervening period to begin the application of these measures more widely. Similarly, solicitors and barristers acting for victims of domestic abuse should be mindful to apply for such special measures at as early an opportunity as possible and remind the court of any ordered measures in any pre-hearing correspondence.
Please contact Kathryn Ainsworth or Faith Widdowson if you would like more information about the issues raised in this article or any aspect of family law.