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My Lords, the Government have today announced the establishment of an expert panel, which will hold a public call for evidence about how the family courts protect children and victims in child contact and other child arrangements cases relating to domestic abuse and other serious offences. The panel will report within three months.
I am very grateful to the Minister for his reply. I am delighted to hear it, having met many victims and survivors of this horrendous abuse through the family courts, but will the panel be chaired by the Government and will it be independent of the family courts? Can he reassure me that this review will be underpinned by systematic gathering of data, evidence and analysis? Otherwise, it will have to be repeated several times and for me, that means too many lessons learned because of too many lives lost under that status.
My Lords, it is intended that this will be an expert panel with representatives of the third sector, the judiciary and the Ministry of Justice.
My Lords, I declare my legal interests as set out in the register. Law Society research confirms that the legal aid cuts of 2012 and the accompanying means test operate as a barrier to people in poverty—including victims of violence and abuse—claiming legal advice and representation, requiring them to represent themselves against their abusers. Will the Government ensure, via their review of the legal aid means test, that adequate support is available? Will they address the problem that in 61% of cases of domestic abuse, there are no separate facilities for waiting or for giving evidence by screen or video link?
My Lords, the Government are concerned to ensure full access to justice, particularly in such delicate cases as those involving children and domestic abuse. The draft domestic abuse Bill was subject to pre-legislative scrutiny this morning and will come before the House in the foreseeable future.
My Lords, Women’s Aid published research last year showing very harmful gender-stereotypical attitudes to women survivors of domestic abuse and their children in our family courts. Does the Minister think that there is a connection between that and the fact that the Government’s gender strategy shows that 60% of the women in our prisons are victims of domestic violence?
I am not able to identify the link that the noble Baroness refers to. We have full confidence in our family courts system and in the ability of our circuit and district judges to discharge their functions objectively and without regard to issues of gender. In order to do that in cases of the kind that we have discussed, they will always be guided by the requirement for the interests of the child to be paramount.
My Lords, perhaps I may ask about the Minister’s announcement of the setting up of an expert panel. Children are often victims too, whether the damage inflicted is physical or psychological. I am worried about the fundamental presumption of the family courts that the interest of the child is to have contact with both parents, sometimes even when abuse of the parent with care is proven or alleged. However, this is tricky territory, because parental alienation can enable one parent to use the children as a weapon. Will the review, called for by 123 colleagues in the other place, work alongside the panel or is it not needed now because we have the panel?
My Lords, the intention is that the expert panel should meet in June, that it should report in a very short period and that we should then be guided by its findings. That will inform us more fully as to the evidential position that should properly be considered. I emphasise that the paramount consideration in these matters is always the interests of the child. The Children Act 1989 rightly places the child’s welfare as the paramount consideration, and there is no absolute right for any parent to have contact with a child.
My Lords, what plans are there to train more judges for the family courts? Much of the backlog seems to indicate that we do not have adequately trained judges who specialise in the needs of persons who come before the family courts.
We consider that we have a specialised group of judges operating within the family courts. Having regard to the potential for backlogs, to which the noble Baroness refers, we increased circuit and district judge sittings by 4,000 days in 2018-19 and it is our intention to allocate an additional 6,000 days in 2019-20.
My Lords, I believe that the judiciary treat such early signs extremely seriously. Where an instance of domestic abuse comes before the courts, it is recognised that it may be just a beginning that could lead to more serious consequences.