Charities urge Justice Secretary Dominic Raab to guarantee better protection for women in Family Courts
28 signatories highlight flaws and call for urgent reform
The Family Courts 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 today, 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:
“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 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:
“It is unacceptable that after waiting 6 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, Independent Domestic Abuse Services (IDAS):
“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:
“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, Beck Fitzgerald:
“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.”
Here is the letter that has been sent to Dominic Raab MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice And Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Bellamy KC:
8th February 2023
Dear Lord Chancellor,
Six years ago this February, the Ministry of Justice committed to ban the abhorrent practice of victims of domestic abuse being cross-examined by their perpetrators in the family courts.
The promised ban was postponed for years due to parliamentary delays during 2017-2020, finally became law in the Domestic Abuse Act in 2021 and came into force in the courts in 2022. During these years of delay, victims have endured continued abuse at the hands of perpetrators who have been able to cross-examine them in the family court. This diminishes their ability to give evidence and prevents them from advocating for their child’s best interests and safety. Women tell us that it is frightening, degrading and traumatising.
The Domestic Abuse Act changed the law so that if there is a conviction, protection order or evidence of domestic abuse and either party is un-represented, the family and civil courts must consider whether there is another way for cross-examination to take place or for evidence to be obtained. If there is no alternative, a qualified legal representative will be appointed to conduct the cross examination. This is just one change of the many reforms urgently required to ensure that the family courts are safe for women and children experiencing domestic abuse.
However, the signatories to this statement are highly concerned that victims are still subject to this appalling practice for a number of reasons. Firstly, the ban only applies to new cases – meaning that victims already engaged in family court proceedings cannot access this protection. On average, it is currently taking over 11 months for private law children cases to reach a final order – and we know many women wait much longer than this. Secondly, the Ministry of Justice has set the fees that legal representatives can charge for this work at a rate which is not competitive. Anecdotally, concerns have been raised that not enough qualified legal representative are therefore signing up. Significant concerns have been raised from professional bodies about the safety and effectiveness of the scheme, in light of limited funding for and availability of training for this challenging work. Finally, the Ministry of Justice is not monitoring or evaluating the implementation of the ban at all. How can victims trust that it is working to keep them safe?
Increasing numbers of women escaping domestic abuse have faced the appalling reality of being questioned by an abusive partner since legal aid reforms in 2013 led to a significant increase in the number of unrepresented parties in family courts. The Domestic Abuse Act finally promised change, but the reality is that women across England and Wales are still enduring abuse because the implementation of the law is not good enough.
In 2023, we urge the government to review the legal fees for cross-examination and ensure the ban applies to all cases, as well as committing to ongoing monitoring of its implementation and a review of how it’s working for victims. This should be the first step to delivering the significant and wide-reaching reforms to the family court response to domestic abuse, promised in the Ministry of Justice’s own Harm Panel report in 2020 but yet again held back by repeated delays and failing to protect women and children experiencing domestic abuse.
Farah Nazeer, Chief Executive, Women’s Aid
Andrea Simon, Director, End Violence Against Women Coalition
Olive Craig, Senior Legal Officer, Rights of Women
Jayne Butler, CEO, Rape Crisis England & Wales
Andrea Kilvington, CEO, Standing Together
Harriet Wistrich, Director, Centre for Women’s Justice
Gisela Valle, Director, Latin American Women’s Rights Service
Yasmin Rehman, CEO, Juno Women’s Aid
Sarah Hill, CEO IDAS (Independent Domestic Abuse Services)
Dr Charlotte Proudman
Cris McCurley, Partner, Ben Hoare Bell LLP
Dr Adrienne Barnett, Reader in Law, Brunel University London
Jenny Beck KC, Solicitor & Director, Beck Fitzgerald
Natasha Rattu, Director, Karma Nirvana
Medina Johnson, Chief Executive, IRISi
Anthea Sully, Chief Executive, White Ribbon UK
Maureen Connolly, Chief Executive, Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid
Janet Dalrymple, CEO, Safer Places
Aoife Delaney, Women’s Development and Advocacy Support Officer, Traveller Movement
Indy Cross, Chief Executive, Agenda Alliance
Diana Nammi, Executive Director, IKWRO – Women’s Rights Organisation
Selma Taha, Executive Director, Southall Black Sisters
Amra Dautovic, National lead for domestic abuse at Richmond Fellowship
Donna Covey CBE, Chief Executive, AVA (Against Violence and Abuse)
Zoe Dronfield, Survivor and campaigner
Jo Todd, CEO, Respect
Ruth Davison, CEO, Refuge