New Clause 15 - Children as victims of domestic abuse

Part of Domestic Abuse Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:42 pm on 6th July 2020.

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Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women 4:42 pm, 6th July 2020

Homes should be places of love and safety, but for 2.4 million people across the country they are not. We want the abuse to stop, and we want victims to live, peaceful, safe and happy lives. That is why the Government are bringing forward this Domestic Abuse Bill.

Domestic abuse does not just affect adults. It affects the children living in abusive households too. The Government have always recognised the devastating impact that domestic abuse has on a child who sees, hears or experiences it. Indeed, the need to consider the effects on children runs through the Bill, through the draft statutory guidance and in our non-legislative work. As I hope is acknowledged, our approach throughout the extensive scrutiny of the Bill has been to listen, and that is exactly what we have done. We have listened carefully to my right hon. Friends the Members for Maidenhead (Mrs May) and for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). We have listened to my hon. Friend Nickie Aiken in Committee, as well as other Members across the House, including Liz Twist, who have encouraged us to do more. I am, therefore, pleased to introduce new clause 15 to the Bill, which states that children who see, hear or experience domestic abuse are victims.

As with the statutory definition in clauses 1 and 2, we expect the new clause to be adopted more generally by public authorities, frontline practitioners and others responding to domestic abuse. Indeed, it is vital that locally commissioned services consider and address the impact of domestic abuse on children.

We have also listened to the harrowing experiences of victims going through the family and civil courts. It is vital that victims of domestic abuse are supported to give their best evidence in court and to minimise the distress that this can cause. The Bill on introduction already ensured that victims of domestic abuse are automatically entitled to special measures in criminal proceedings, meaning that they can, for example, give evidence from behind a screen or via a video link. New clauses 16 and 17 now extend that automatic eligibility to victims giving evidence in family and civil proceedings.

In May last year, the Ministry of Justice established a panel of experts to review how the family courts deal with the risk of harm to children and parents in private law children’s cases involving domestic abuse and other serious offences. The panel received more than 1,200 submissions and the report was published just a couple of weeks ago. The submissions highlighted that many victims of domestic abuse feel extreme anxiety about appearing in the family court and coming face to face with the perpetrator. Anyone who has tracked the progress of this Bill, or who has worked with and listened to victims outside the confines of this Chamber, will know just how terrible some of those experiences can be. The panel has recommended that the provisions in the Bill concerning special measures in the criminal courts should apply to all private law children’s cases in which domestic abuse is alleged. New clause 16 does that, and new clause 17 achieves the same in civil proceedings.

However, we have gone further with regard to civil proceedings, as new clause 18 prohibits cross-examination in person where such cross-examination by the perpetrator is likely to diminish the quality of the witness’s evidence or would cause significant distress to the witness. This new clause also prevents the victim from having to cross-examine the alleged perpetrator in person, with counsel being appointed by the court, if necessary. In each scenario, such cross-examination can serve to re-traumatise victims and, again, prevent them from giving their best evidence in court. Cross-examination in person is already prohibited in the criminal courts. The Bill, on introduction, extended the prohibition to the family courts and, on the recent recommendation of the Civil Justice Council, we will now ensure that the bar applies across all courts. These changes will have a profound impact on victims in all our constituencies who are seeking justice.