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Thursday, 21 June 2018

Commissioner demands ban on domestic abusers cross-examining victims in court

Written by Nick Lester

A change in the law is being demanded by the Victims' Commissioner to stop victims of domestic violence being cross-examined by their abusers in the family courts.

Baroness Newlove (pictured) said the practice enabled abusive partners "to continue their controlling and coercive behaviour in plain sight".

Expressing frustration at the delay in introducing a promised government ban, the Tory peer signalled she would seek to amend draft legislation aimed at reforming the courts service.

The Government says the Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill will ensure the courts and tribunals system is "fit for the 21st century".

Forming part of a wider package of modernisation reforms, measures contained in the Bill include allowing authorised court staff to carry out routine judicial functions in the Crown Court, such as changing the start time of a hearing, and so freeing up judges' time.

Most of the proposals were contained in the previous and more far-reaching Prisons and Courts Bill, which fell when the general election was called.

Lady Newlove, whose husband Garry was murdered by three youths in 2007, raised her concerns over the continuation of cross-examination of domestic abuse victims by perpetrators during second reading of the latest Bill.

She said: "Over the last few months, I have been around the country speaking to many victims of this horrendous crime.

"Hearing their stories has left me shocked, as has the way that the courts have treated these vulnerable victims.

"Time is now of the essence. It is within our gift to transform these people's experiences now, if only we can implement the legislation.

"How can it be right that a victim can give evidence behind a screen in our criminal courts and yet, sadly, when they appear in our family courts, despite a restraining order being in place, cross-examination can be carried out by the individual who has made the lives of that victim and their children pure hell?"

Stressing the need for urgent action, Lady Newlove said: "Victims will continue to suffer a continuation of their abuse in our family courts because abusive partners are allowed to continue their controlling and coercive behaviour in plain sight, not only towards the victims but towards the children.

"How can we expect a victim in such a traumatic environment to give the best evidence and argue for the best scenario for their children - one that keeps them safe - when the person they are standing up against is the person they are most afraid of in the world?"

There was not the "luxury" of waiting for future legislation she argued, and added: "How many victims will be allowed to be questioned about their sex life by their abusive partners in that time, and how many will be manipulated into agreeing contact arrangements that put their children at high risk?

"I am not prepared to let this moment pass without making sure that those victims' voices are heard.

"Victims must be able to access a system that helps them move towards a safer future for their family - not one that adds to the abuse and anxiety of the situation they found themselves in in the first place."

Her call was backed by shadow attorney general Baroness Chakrabarti, who said: "We should be concerned that those provisions are not in this Bill and ask for further assurances on them."

The Labour frontbencher also raised concerns the Government's modernisation drive had led to court closures and staff cuts.

She said: "Reductions in the number of local courts pile further pressure on those remaining courts, which are already creaking under the weight of budget and staff cuts over many years."

Lady Chakrabarti said Labour would be pushing for a number of safeguards in the Bill, including limits to the delegation of judicial powers to court staff.

Former lord chief justice Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd stressed the need for reform of the service.

"If modernisation does not go through, the only prospect for our court system is significant decline," said the independent crossbencher.

Opening the second reading debate, Tory frontbencher Lord Keen of Elie said the draft legislation formed part of the Government's plan "to create a modern, world-class courts and justice system that is swift, straightforward and works for everyone".

"The Bill marks an important first step in delivering a reformed courts and tribunals system," he said.

Responding later to Lady Newlove's concerns about the cross-examination of victims of domestic violence, Lord Keen said: "It does not fall within the purview of this Bill but we have it at the forefront of our minds and are determined to take it forward. It is an issue of parliamentary time."

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2018, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) PA Wire.