Munby P could face MPs over vulnerable witnesses reform
â€˜Legal aid cuts have left working with the country's most vulnerable in the family courts impossibly difficult'
Sir James Munby may face the Justice Select Committee after he called for a ban on cross-examination of vulnerable people in family proceedings.
An investigation by The Guardian last month revealed that women were often cross-examined by violent ex-partners in secretive court hearings. In a statement released a few days later, the president of the Family Division demanded change.
‘I have been raising since 2014 the pressing need to reform the way in which vulnerable people give evidence in family proceedings. I have made clear my view that the family justice system lags woefully behind the criminal justice system,’ he said.
‘Reform is required as a matter of priority. I would welcome a bar. But the judiciary cannot provide this, because it requires primary legislation and would involve public expenditure. It is therefore a matter for ministers.’
Munby P also expressed his disappointment at the ‘slow response’ by government to the issue.
Sir James said he would make decisions on a review undertaken by Mr Justice Cobb of practice direction 12J of the Family Procedure Rules, which judges should use to stop direct interrogation of domestic abuse victims by the perpetrator, early this year.
Speaking to Solicitors Journal, Bob Neill MP, chair of the Justice Select Committee, said: ‘Sir James makes a very serious point and it is one that I have had made to me by practitioners as well. I hope that the government will take this seriously. The Courts & Prison Reform Bill could provide an opportunity for primary legislation in the coming session.
‘When the house returns next week I shall suggest to my colleagues on the committee that we invite Sir James to a one-off session to set out his concerns and possible solutions in more detail. In terms of timing that is likely to be once the revision of practice direction 12 has been published.’
In a further development, The Guardian has today reported that an emergency review has been commissioned by justice secretary, Liz Truss, to find the quickest way to introduce a ban on perpetrators directly cross-examining victims.
In reducing its budget from £2.4bn to £1.6bn over the last parliament, the Ministry of Justice has been accused of damaging the ability of the family courts to deliver justice fairly, effectively, and efficiently.
Helen Greenfield, an associate at Family Law in Partnership, said she ‘completely agreed’ with Sir James’s call for a ban and blamed legal aid cuts for creating the problem.
‘The problem is essentially money,’ said Greenfield. ‘Despite the limited concessions the government made on their introduction, the legal aid cuts have left working with the country’s most vulnerable in the family courts impossibly difficult leading to more litigants in person representing themselves, not being able to put their cases forward properly and just adding to their stress when they are already at breaking point.
‘Even if primary legislation were introduced the funding needs to be available to provide judges with the options necessary to allow them to protect such people. More work, time and money needs to be spent on such issues.’
Matthew Rogers is a legal reporter at Solicitors Journal