Government plans for domestic abuse victims a 'bizarre dichotomy'
Spring Budget pledge comes weeks after proposals to cut fees paid to criminal court appointees
The government’s funding pledge to domestic abuse organisations in today’s Spring Budget, together with its proposed fee cuts to the criminal courts appointee scheme, have been described as a ‘bizarre dichotomy’ by the vice-chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association.
On International Women’s Day, the prime minister Theresa May announced, via MumsNet, that £20m would be made available to organisations tackling domestic violence and abuse in what is a ‘key priority’ for the government and of ‘personal importance’ to her.
The move comes less than one month after the Ministry of Justice’s proposals in its consultation, ‘Litigators’ Graduated Fees Scheme and Court Appointees’, to cap payments to court-appointed lawyers in the magistrates’ court and crown court. The appointee scheme was introduced in 2000 to protect domestic abuse complainants from being cross-examined by the accused.
Sarah Grace, vice-chair of the CLSA and a director of Welsh solicitors firm Morgans Criminal Law, questioned the government’s aims. ‘What the government is embarking on is a bizarre dichotomy. On the face of it, fronting the funding for support organisations is a laudable aim but women need protection in court when facing their alleged abusers.
The change aims to save the ministry £6m to £8m per year and would see appointees paid at legal aid rates – 75 per cent less than the private rate they currently receive.
‘What the proposed cut in the litigator fee consultation proposes is the great possibility that lawyers will be unable to do the work that protects victims from being cross-examined by their abusers. They are taking away the protection that exists when they will need it the most,’ Grace commented.
She added that there would be an increased risk of delays while the court attempts to find a lawyer willing to engage in the work for lower rates. ‘Courts will struggle to find lawyers who are able – even though they are willing – to engage in this work, which will result in cases being delayed, justice being delayed, and the outcome being delayed for alleged victims, which isn’t in their interest.
‘It permeates as well. Quite often you will have cases involving individuals who are in the family courts and the criminal courts. The outcome of the criminal case will quite often have an impact on the family case, which will deepen any anxiety over that aspect. Those family cases may not only involve domestic violence, but they will also involve children who will be affected as well.’
The potential negative impact on the family court follows the MoJ’s positive announcement two weeks ago that under the Prisons and Courts Bill, family judges would be given new powers to prevent vulnerable parties from being cross-examined in court.
Mandip Ghai, senior legal officer at Rights of Women, also commented on the government’s plans. ‘We welcome the government’s recent commitments to funding vital domestic violence organisations and to improving the justice system for survivors. We are, therefore, surprised to hear that fees for advocates who conduct cross-examination to protect survivors in the criminal courts are being so drastically cut. Delays and cancelled hearings are already a source of distress and injustice for survivors and any steps which increase these occurrences, such as the lack of availability of advocates, should be avoided.’
Yesterday, the Lord Chancellor Liz Truss, told BBC Radio 4’s Law in Action programme that the situation in both the family and the criminal courts was ‘not good enough’ and pledged to do more to protect complainants.
Truss said there was scope for ‘wider reform of family justice and we will be looking at that in a green paper’. She added: ‘I’m also leading a domestic violence taskforce with [the home secretary] Amber Rudd to show across the criminal justice system how we can make it better, how we can intervene earlier in these cases, how can we deal with situations before they lead to people ending up in these positions in court.’
Matthew Rogers is a legal reporter at Solicitors Journal