Amendment 109

Domestic Abuse Bill - Committee (4th Day) – in the House of Lords at 1:46 pm on 3rd February 2021.

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Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames:

Moved by Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames

109: Clause 62, page 39, line 18, leave out from “person” to end of line 19 and insert “(“P”) is, or is at risk of being, a victim of domestic abuse carried out by a person listed in subsection (1A).(1A) A person referred to in this subsection is—(a) a party to the proceedings;(b) a relative of a party to the proceedings (other than P); or(c) a witness in the proceedings.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment and the other amendments to Clause 62 in the name of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames would apply the same special measures to parties or witnesses who are victims or at risk of being victims of domestic abuse in civil proceedings as apply in family proceedings.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, my four amendments in this group—Amendments 109, 111, 112 and 113—to which the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, has kindly added her name, are intended simply to apply the Bill’s provisions relating to special measures in family proceedings to civil proceedings as well.

Under the Bill as it stands, special measures are to be available to parties or witnesses in family proceedings who are victims of domestic abuse or at risk of being such victims. Although the provision of special measures in courts is relatively recent, the courts recognise how important it is to help vulnerable parties and witnesses reduce the trauma— the ordeal, even—of involvement in court proceedings. Special measures are arrangements to help a vulnerable party or witness give evidence or participate in court proceedings in a way that mitigates that trauma. Even in the driest and least emotional of cases, the experience of being involved in litigation, especially of giving oral evidence, is often extremely stressful. For vulnerable parties and witnesses, most with a history of deep and often emotionally searing personal involvement in the events that led to the proceedings, the experience of reliving them is fraught with anxiety, fear and even terror. Therefore, the need for special measures arises.

Such special measures enable witnesses or parties to give evidence from behind a screen, usually in abuse cases, to protect them from having to face their abuser or abuser’s family across a courtroom. Alternatively, provision can be made for witnesses to give evidence via a live link or with the assistance of an intermediary. Special measures cannot remove the fear but can help to reduce it. We take them as a matter of compassion for those involved, but also out of concern that victims and vulnerable parties should not be too frightened of bringing proceedings to come forward and therefore continue to suffer abuse in silence, sometimes with horrifying consequences. We also take special measures to help ensure that proceedings are fair, that the quality of the evidence before the court is as good as it can be in difficult circumstances, and that the courts can, therefore, make fair decisions.

For family proceedings, Clause 61 would require that where a party or witness is, or is at risk of being, a victim of domestic abuse carried out by another party or relative of another party, or by a witness in the proceedings, it is to be assumed that there is a risk of the quality of the victim’s evidence, or of her participation in the proceedings generally, being diminished.

That has the effect of bringing into play the provisions of Part 3A of the Family Procedure Rules 2010, which are supported by a detailed practice direction. They provide that victims of domestic abuse and other parties or witnesses are eligible for special measures if the quality of their evidence or their ability to participate in the proceedings is likely to be diminished by their vulnerability. The rules and the practice direction set out a full code for the court to identify vulnerability and consider ways to help vulnerable witnesses and parties. They do not just cover giving evidence. Directions may include

“matters such as the structure and the timing of the hearing, the formality of language to be used in the court and whether (if facilities allow for it) the parties should be enabled to enter the court building through different routes and use different waiting areas.”

The existing provisions also go wider than domestic abuse and cover:

“sexual abuse … physical and emotional abuse; racial and/or cultural abuse or discrimination … forced marriage or … “honour based violence” … female genital or other physical mutilation … abuse or discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation … and … human trafficking.”

Clause 61 requires the court to assume that, if the threshold I mentioned is met, special measures will automatically be available in domestic abuse cases for victims and those at risk of being victims. The court will then consider what, if any, special measures should be taken. There is scope for an opt-out under Clause 61(4), whereby a party or witness in family proceedings can signify that they do

“not wish to be deemed to be eligible” for special measures.

The reason that I have spent some time setting out the background and the arrangements proposed for family proceedings is that they are thoroughly sensible and helpful and likely to be effective without unforeseen and unjust gaps. My amendments are directed at ensuring that the same arrangements apply in civil proceedings by bringing Clause 62 into line with Clause 61. They would implement the recommendations made by the Civil Justice Council and supported by Refuge, Women’s Aid and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, among others.

Clause 62, as drafted, does not do the same for civil proceedings as Clause 61 does for family proceedings. For a reason I do not understand, the clause sets a higher bar for civil proceedings. There is an additional threshold test, which a party or witness would have to surmount to secure eligibility for such measures. The clause requires that to qualify as a victim or alleged victim, the person must be the victim of “a specified offence”, that is one specified in regulations by the Lord Chancellor. That condition is defined in Clause 62(3). For it to be met, there must have been a conviction or a caution for the offence, or someone must have been charged with the offence against the victim. Therefore, it would not be enough for the vulnerable witness or party to establish that they are frightened of being a victim or at risk of being a victim, nor even that they have, in fact, been a victim. They have to establish that the criminal law has been invoked so that the offender must have been cautioned or charged by the police for the specified offence or convicted of it by a criminal court. I suggest that there is no basis for this distinction between family and civil proceedings.

We know how often victims do not report abuse to the police, whether out of fear of their abusers or the relatives, fear of the trauma of criminal proceedings, concern for their private lives being exposed, or other reasons. The Office for National Statistics estimates that around four in five—79%—of survivors do not report partner abuse to the police. Requiring that victims go through the criminal process before being treated as vulnerable, and excluding those at risk of being victims from being treated as vulnerable altogether, represents a failure to understand vulnerability. Invoking criminal proceedings requires robustness. Experience and common sense tell us that vulnerable witnesses and parties are those least likely to involve the police and the criminal courts.

I have discussed this issue with the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, and I am grateful to him for talking to me about these amendments and engaging with them. The noble Lord explained the Government’s position by saying that there is an intimacy to family proceedings not present in ordinary civil proceedings. In many cases that will be right, but I invite the noble Lord to concede, from his own experience, that there are literally thousands of cases involving partners, former partners and others who are personally connected—as defined in the Bill—which involve disputes that have a domestic or quasi-domestic context.

I give a few examples only: disputes about ownership and occupation of property; ownership, loss or damage to goods; landlord and tenant disputes, including disputes about who holds tenancies; employment disputes; and inheritance disputes. There are also disputes arising out of families running businesses together, which has become increasingly common in recent decades. These sometimes involve partnership disputes, sometimes it is disputes over the ownership of shares or misuse of company funds. In these cases, the parties might be companies, but the witnesses might have been involved in an acrimonious and abusive personal relationship.

The list goes on and lawyers well know that cases with personal connections give rise to the greatest animosity and the greatest tension. I can see no reason to apply a different test for vulnerability in civil proceedings from that applicable to family proceedings. If the conditions for family proceedings are met and the party or a witness is a victim or at risk of being a victim of domestic abuse, carried out by another party or a relative of such a party, or another witness in the proceedings, special measures should generally follow. It will always be for the court to determine whether those conditions are met, as it is in family proceedings. It would also be for the court to determine whether special measures are appropriate and what they should be. If the threshold is met, however, it is unjustified, illogical and unfair to insist that an offence must already have been committed and that the criminal law must have been invoked before eligibility for special measures is established. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the clear, comprehensive and powerful outline of these amendments by the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, in whose name they are tabled. It was a pleasure to attach my name to Amendments 109 and 111.

The case has been set out very clearly so I do not need to detain the Committee for long. I will just say why I attached my name to these amendments when I saw that no other noble Lords had done so. It was because of my experiences as a young journalist many years ago in Australia, when I covered mostly criminal courts. This was in the days long before there was thought of protecting witnesses who were the victims of what we now call domestic abuse.

I saw the sometimes harrowing ordeals that people had to go through. I think the noble Lord, Lord Marks used the word “ordeal”. Members of your Lordships’ House are used to testifying, speaking and being in these spaces, but we are talking about people who are victims of domestic abuse and have suffered all the personal damage that entails. They are also not used to being in these environments very often. As the noble Lord, Lord Marks, said, this is an issue of compassion—of protecting people and ensuring that we are not making victims of domestic abuse suffer again. It is also an issue of justice because if they are to be able to clearly set out the case—to explain the circumstances and to bear witness—they need to be in conditions that reasonably allow them to do that.

As the noble Lord, Lord Marks, said, to set a higher bar for civil proceedings than for family proceedings simply does not make sense. As he said, there are many cases in which civil proceedings will be intimately entangled with family issues and issues of domestic circumstances. I think particularly of farms and some cases I have seen where the acrimonious break-up of family farm businesses will often be tangled in civil proceedings but have an intensely personal side as well.

These are important, sensible and helpful amendments. I very much hope that the Government will take them on board in the interests of compassion and justice.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 2:00 pm, 3rd February 2021

My Lords, I can be very brief in the light of what the two previous speakers have said on this amendment.

The purpose of this group of amendments, and a later group, is simply to provide consistency of protection for victims and survivors of abuse, across both the family and civil courts. These amendments would replicate in the civil courts protections that the Government already agree are needed in the family court. This seems an exceptionally reasonable ask. We support the aim of and reason for the amendments, as set out by the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames. I will be interested to hear from the Government why they have chosen to draft the Bill with this distinction between the courts.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, explained, these amendments seek to bring the procedure relating to special measures in civil courts in line with the provisions in family courts. We agree with the fundamental aim set out by the noble Lord: to ensure fair proceedings, meaning proceedings that are fair not only to the parties but to witnesses.

In that context, the Government’s starting point when considering the experience of vulnerable witnesses in the civil courts stems from the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, which published its interim report and recommendations in April 2018. The inquiry recommended

“that the Ministry of Justice provides in primary legislation that victims and survivors of child sexual abuse in civil court cases, where they are claiming compensation in relation to the abuse they suffered, are afforded the same protections as vulnerable witnesses in criminal court cases.”

As the inquiry put it, this was to ensure that victims and survivors of child sex abuse can provide the best evidence in civil court cases.

While the Government had some sympathy with the recommendation, we also agreed that the issues raised by this recommendation needed further consideration, including whether it was right in principle to extend the protections to other vulnerable witnesses. The Government therefore sought expert help from the Civil Justice Council, which was asked to consider the vulnerability of parties and witnesses in civil actions, not just in relation to claims arising from sexual assault or abuse but more widely. The Committee will be aware that, after extensive consultation and expert input, the Civil Justice Council published its report in February last year. It conceded that there was no single or coherent set of rules in the Civil Procedure Rules dealing with vulnerability in the same way as there was in the Family Procedure Rules.

In this context, we must remember an important point, to which the noble Lord, Lord Marks, alluded. Civil cases, by their nature, have the potential to cover a much broader range of circumstances where there is no prior close connection between the parties; for example, where a victim is suing an alleged perpetrator of sexual abuse or in an action against the police or an employer where abuse is alleged. Of course, I take on board the noble Lord’s examples of cases where the parties may be corporate but, none the less, there are individual witnesses who are victims.

Having considered the matter, and in relation to special measures, the Civil Justice Council report did not go as far as recommending that it should be enshrined in primary legislation. Rather, it was felt that it was best left to the flexibility of court rules since—this is an important point—judges in civil proceedings already have inherent powers to order the provision of special measures under the Civil Procedure Rules when it is considered necessary. However, the Government took a slightly different view, taking the recommendations that came from the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, which I have already mentioned.

As the Civil Justice Council report highlighted, vulnerability in the civil courts is not limited only to victims of domestic abuse. Some people may have mental or physical conditions that render them vulnerable and hamper their access to justice. Others, as with victims or survivors of abuse, may be vulnerable solely by reason of the subject matter of the proceedings before the court. This, as the report suggested, may affect their ability to participate in proceedings or give their best evidence.

We want to avoid—this is a risk—unnecessarily prolonging cases because of satellite litigation which revolves around the granting of special measures where the case is not contingent on vulnerability. At the same time, as I said, we need to ensure that the justice system is fair—that is, fair for all. Therefore, we must be careful to focus this provision on only the circumstances in which it is needed.

Even though the approach is different in civil courts, judges in civil proceedings already have inherent powers to order the provision of some special measures under the Civil Procedure Rules when it is considered necessary. I hope that this goes some way towards addressing the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Marks, which was shared by the other two speakers in this short debate; I acknowledge their contributions, of course, but I think it is fair to say that they largely agreed with the approach taken by the noble Lord. In that context, the Civil Procedures Rule Committee continues to examine the issues faced by vulnerable witnesses in civil courts.

While we want to ensure parity between each jurisdiction, we also need to build in allowances for the differences—and there are differences—between them. This is why the provisions in respect of cross-examination and special measures in civil cases differ from those in family proceedings.

In the light of my discussions with the noble Lord, Lord Marks, and others, and in the light of all the contributions in this short debate, let me say—in clear terms, I hope—that we very much appreciate the arguments raised in relation to fairness and the concerns around availability of special measures for those who will need them in the civil courts. We will consider this issue carefully ahead of Report and continue to listen to arguments. Of course, I remain open to discussion with both the noble Lord, Lord Marks, and others.

In the light of that confirmation and undertaking, I hope that the noble Lord will be content to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, first, let me say how grateful I am to the noble Lords who spoke.

It was interesting to hear my rather dry opening supplemented by the personal experience of the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, in courts in Australia. She made the valuable point that, generally speaking, litigants and witnesses are not used to being in court—it is a new experience for them and this adds to their concern, which is of course amplified in the case of vulnerable witnesses and parties. She also gave the interesting and important example of family farms giving rise to very personal disputes, where there is often a background of abuse. I am bound to say that, in my years of practice on the Western Circuit before doing more of what I do now, disputes about family farms were endless. They are to be taken into account. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, for his support as well.

The Minister has given a considered response and ultimately made an undertaking to me and others. I am grateful for the way he has dealt with the amendments. However, I am bound to say that nothing I heard from him justifies the distinction to be drawn between the protection afforded in family proceedings and the protection available in civil proceedings. I got the impression that he understands the reasons why we have disputed that distinction.

I do not accept that a system based on the Civil Procedure Rules for protection in civil proceedings is anything like as good as a system based on statute, as the arrangements in family proceedings will be following this Bill. If a statutory arrangement is good enough for family proceedings and is applicable as appropriate for those, I would suggest that it is appropriate for civil proceedings as well. Nor do I accept that there is a realistic prospect of satellite litigation arising regarding the availability or withholding of special measures. That seems most unrealistic and, in any event, even if it were realistic, it would be no more realistic in a set of measures based on legislation than it would be presently in a set of measures based on the uncertain application of the rules of court. I welcome the Minister’s commitment to further engagement. I regard this as a very important issue, and I will of course speak to him, as no doubt will others, between now and Report in the hope of achieving agreement. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 109 withdrawn.

Amendments 110 to 113 not moved.

Clause 62 agreed.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 114. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in the debate.

Clause 63: Prohibition of cross-examination in person in family proceedings