'Long overdue' reforms will protect vulnerable parties in family court
Cross-examination proposals must ensure a fair trial, says Resolution
Family judges will be given new powers to prevent vulnerable parties from being cross-examined in court under new proposals announced by the Ministry of Justice, which has also relaxed the time and evidence restrictions for domestic abuse victims to obtain legal aid.
Under the Prisons and Courts Bill announced this week, a party who has been charged or convicted will be prevented from questioning the victim or alleged victim of that offence.
Judges will also be given the power to prevent a party who has not been charged or convicted from cross-examining a witness where the court finds that the witness’s quality of evidence would be diminished or they would suffer ‘significant distress’ and if it would be in the interests of justice to give the direction.
If a party cannot cross-examine a witness and has no legal representation, the court may appoint a qualified legal representative to do so. These costs will be met by the MoJ’s central funds budget.
Nigel Shepherd, Resolution’s national chair, welcomed the proposals: ‘It is a reform that is long overdue in family cases where the fear of such cross-examination can result in victims of abuse not seeking the protection they need and, if they do go ahead, adds to the trauma they have suffered.
‘As ever with legislation, the devil will be in the detail and there is much hard work to be done to ensure these measures can be successfully delivered. Resolution looks forward to playing its part in this.’
Philip Scott, chair of the charity’s domestic abuse committee, said the proposals must ensure a fair trial takes place. ‘These are sensitive and important cases, often involving children’s futures. Just having a court-appointed advocate to cross-examine an abuser may be too simplistic.
‘There are further measures needed to make to ensure family courts support vulnerable witnesses as well as criminal courts do, such as improving facilities. This should be an urgent priority for the government.’
In a separate move, the MoJ has decided to scrap the controversial five-year time limit for providing evidence of abuse previously placed on those trying to obtain legal aid. The ministry will also accept new forms of evidence including statements from solicitors or organisations working with domestic abuse victims.
However, more work will need to be done highlighting the availability of legal aid in such cases. A survey from 2016 found that two in three domestic abuse victims were unaware of their eligibility for legal aid. A legal needs survey of 8,912 people found that 20 per cent of domestic violence sufferers thought they could not access legal aid, while 47 per cent did not know.
Commenting on the MoJ’s latest announcement, a Law Society spokesperson said: ‘Legal aid is a lifeline for those who have suffered abuse. It is often the only way someone can bring their case before the courts.
‘Relaxing time and evidence restrictions so more victims of domestic violence can get legal aid for court hearings will be a welcome relief for many people.
‘These changes will help domestic violence victims who have previously been deprived of valuable legal advice, support and representation to access essential family law remedies.’
Matthew Rogers is a legal reporter at Solicitors Journal