THE FAMILY COURTS in England and Wales are failing survivors of domestic abuse, according to 28 leading women’s charities, solicitors and survivors.
A letter signed by the group has been delivered to Secretary of State for Justice Dominic Raab, calling for urgent action to stop the practice of perpetrators of domestic abuse from cross examining their victims in court.
Farah Nazeer, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid says: “It is appalling that women are being subjected to what is essentially state-sanctioned abuse within court settings, with perpetrators cross-examining their victims. No one would expect a burglar to be allowed to question the person they held at knifepoint.
“We welcomed the government’s announced commitments in 2017 to ban this abhorrent practice, but we remain unconvinced these measures are protecting survivors of domestic abuse effectively. Without proper scrutiny, women are left unprotected, terrified and subject to further abuse.
“We urge the Ministry of Justice to establish robust monitoring and evaluation to ensure the legislation is consistently implemented. The legislation must be extended to cover all child-contact cases in the system, not only those that have begun since July 2022, and we want assurances that enough qualified legal representatives are taking on this critical work.”
The letter has been sent ahead of the sixth anniversary of the UK government’s commitment to ban what the group have called an ‘abhorrent’ practice. The commitment, made in February 2017, was legislated only last year, in July 2022, under the Domestic Abuse Act and applied only to new cases, meaning that women already in the system have not been protected.
Other critical flaws identified include the fact that too few qualified legal representatives are signing up to undertake the cross examination in domestic abuse cases. Campaigners also highlight major concerns that without monitoring, there are no guarantees to ensure that the mandatory ban is actually implemented and suggests that without checks, perpetrators of domestic abuse can still/subject their victims to further abuse and trauma.
A 2020 report published by the Ministry of Justice identified ‘deep-seated and systematic issues’ which impede and obstruct the family court’s ability to respond consistently and effectively to domestic abuse. The signatories to the letter call urgently for the full implementation of the harm panel’s recommendations to protect women and children experiencing abuse.
Olive Craig, Senior Legal Officer, Rights of Women, said: “It is unacceptable that after waiting six years for this legislation to be introduced, the way in which it has been implemented continues to leave survivors of domestic abuse at risk of further trauma and abuse in the court room. Many women will have experienced this state-sanctioned abuse in the years we have waited for this legislation. It is appalling that some will continue to experience it despite Parliament legislating otherwise.
“The Ministry of Justice must take steps to ensure Parliament’s intention is properly implemented including making provision for the necessary training for representatives, ensuring there are enough representatives in place and monitoring that it is actually working.”
Carmel Offord, of Independent Domestic Abuse Services, said: “Many of the people we support tell us how traumatising the family courts are for them, made even worse by being interrogated by their abuser. The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 promised the practice of cross-examination by an abuser would be banned. However, the measures only apply to new cases from July 2022, leaving thousands of women, whose cases are already in progress, to face further abuse in a court room.
“In cases where the new measures can be applied, the implementation must be monitored and evaluated robustly to ensure that it is keeping people safe from this appalling practice. The pace of change in family courts is too slow, endangering children and risking the court system being controlled by abusers. We need action now to evidence the changes that have been promised and protect people from harm.”
Zoe Dronfield, survivor of domestic abuse, said: “I was cross-examined by my abuser, and it was worse than the attack by my ex-partner that almost killed me. To be branded a bad parent is the worst thing that can happen to a mother. I did not do anything wrong other than find myself a victim of horrific domestic abuse and violence, but I was dragged through the family court and cross examined by him to justify his abuse.
“It is often used as a continuation of abuse right under the nose of a judge, yet victims can be goaded, triggered and further traumatised.
“This process allows perpetrators of domestic abuse to cross examine their victim in a court environment, which not only gives them a perceived power but allows them to legally continue emotional abuse of their victim which has a detrimental effect on their testimony. This is abhorrent and stands in the way of a right to fair justice.”
Jenny Beck KC, Solicitor and Director of Beck Fitzgerald said: “Until we properly tackle the ability of perpetrators to use the court process to abuse, access to justice will be compromised. The recommendations of the harm review need to be properly implemented with commitment to funding a process which is both trauma informed and keeps victims safe.”
* Read the letter to Dominic Raab and list of signatories here.
* Source: Women’s Aid