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House of Commons debates DV victims in family courts

Family court protections unfavourably compared with criminal courts

On 15th September the House of Commons held a debate on Domestic Abuse Victims in Family Law Courts. The debate was scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee following a representation from Angela Smith, Maria Miller and Peter Kyle.

The debate was prompted by the January 2016 Women's Aid report Nineteen Child Homicides which highlighted the cases of nineteen children killed by perpetrators of domestic abuse. The killings were made possible through unsafe child contact arrangements, formal and informal. Over half of the child contact arrangements were ordered through the courts. The report recommended that:

Several speakers referred to developments in the criminal courts to protect victims of domestic violence. Keir Starmer MP, the former director of public prosecutions, outlined features of practice in the criminal courts:

"Independent domestic violence advisers and independent sexual advisers are extremely good and are relied on by victims to help them through that part of the process. Specialist courts for domestic violence made a real difference, where everybody in the courtroom was trained and understood the issues; there were separate courts and lists, and the environment made it easier to deal with domestic violence cases. There was better co-ordination and support, with groups like Women's Aid and many others out there to provide the support victims need for the journey they were going to go through in the criminal courts. And then there were practical measures that took the strain off the victim.

"It is particularly important for a 999 tape, recording the person who phones the police to report what is happening, always to be secured, and for a police officer to arrive at the scene wearing a body cam. Those two bits of evidence will secure a conviction in almost every case of domestic abuse. It is amazing that they are still not the norm even in the criminal sphere. With the 999 tape and the body cam, it will almost certainly be possible to prove a case without putting a strain on the victim by requiring him or her to make that case in court.

"… When I went along to the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence and heard some of the evidence about family courts, I was struck by the fact that what I was hearing simply would not be tolerated in the criminal courts any more. Special measures are a norm in the criminal courts, and it would be thought to be the duty of the prosecution, the defence and the court to ensure that they are in place."

Mr Starmer also raised the issue of abuse of the court process.

"There are two types of abuse of process. First, there are the individuals who bring proceedings in which they have no legitimate interest: they are doing it simply to ensure that the person whom they have been stalking or harassing is forced to come to court to strike out their claim. Because these are people with no legitimate interest, the courts will strike out the claim when they get to grips with it, as a vexatious claim. However, the victim will have to go to court to argue that it is vexatious, and that is all that the perpetrator wants: for that person to come to court. …

"This problem could be solved by Christmas. … It ought to be possible for someone working for the senior judiciary to devise a way to ensure that such cases are subject to a special strike-out procedure that does not require the victim to go to court and take the initiative, and some third party does it instead. …

"The second type of abuse of process is more difficult to deal with. In these cases, the perpetrator has an interest—a child, for instance—and it is therefore not possible to say that that individual simply should not be allowed to be in court at all. In those circumstances, it is a question of looking at special measures, support and different ways of arranging family and other courts to ensure that they are not used with ulterior motives, because there is growing evidence that is happening. These are difficult cases, but it must be possible to provide support for victims, special measures and, indeed, a more proactive role for judges. A big change in the criminal courts was that judges began to be much more proactive and to say, 'This is my problem. I must deal with it. It is my duty to provide a better environment for victims on their journey through our courts.'"

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Dr Phillip Lee, responded:

"I was struck by the unfavourable comparison the APPG's report made between the treatment of domestic abuse in the family justice system and that in the criminal justice system, which has done a great deal in recent years to develop a coherent, system-wide response to the matter."

With regard to Practice Direction 12J, Mr Lee said:

"The most senior family judge, the president of the family division, has asked a High Court judge to review the practice direction in the light of recommendations made by Women's Aid and the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence. I will meet the President later today, and intend to raise this with him in person."

For a report of the debate, click here

For the Hansard report of the debate, click here

For the Women's Aid report click here