Amendment 114

Domestic Abuse Bill - Committee (4th Day) – in the House of Lords at 2:00 pm on 3rd February 2021.

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Lord Rosser:

Moved by Lord Rosser

114: Clause 63, page 40, leave out lines 31 to 35Member’s explanatory statementThis is to probe that in the family court, where a perpetrator’s conviction is spent, other protections will be in place to protect a victim of abuse from being cross-examined by the perpetrator.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

My Lords, I am speaking in place of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede on this and a small number of groups to follow. My noble friend sends his apologies to the Committee; he is unable to be here because he is sitting in court today as a magistrate.

Amendment 114 is probing in nature. Proposed new Section 31R in Clause 63 provides for protections against cross-examination in person where one of the parties has a caution or conviction for a specified domestic abuse-related offence against the other. Subsection (3) provides that the protection does not apply where the conviction or caution has been spent. This amendment would remove subsection (3). It is intended to clarify that where a domestic abuse conviction or caution has been spent, other protections against cross- examination in person will apply to prevent a victim suddenly being open to cross-examination in person by a perpetrator with a history of abuse. We are all aware of the traumatic and long-lasting impacts that domestic abuse can have and the continuing risk of abuse that victims can face from a perpetrator. Where a conviction becomes spent and the protections under this new section lapse, there should surely be a risk assessment before cross-examination in person can be permitted. I hope that we are going to find out that the Bill will provide these extra protections where there is evidence of abuse or a risk of distress to the victim. It would helpful if the Government could give clarity and assurances on this point in their response.

The Victims’ Commissioner for London has also raised with us the issue of restraining orders, which are often given for a fairly short period. It would be helpful if the Minister could give assurances that the expiration of a restraining order would not impact on the ability of a victim to access necessary protections from that perpetrator in a family proceeding. I look forward to the Minister’s reply and to his explanation of the various government amendments in the group. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Newlove Baroness Newlove Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 2:15 pm, 3rd February 2021

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 114. As the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, has just said, it is purely a probing amendment concerning the need for additional safeguards in cases where a conviction or caution has been spent. It seeks to build on the excellent proposals championed by the Government to protect the survivors of domestic abuse from being cross-examined by their perpetrators in the family court. As the former Victims’ Commissioner, I sadly heard directly from abuse survivors who had endured the pain, humiliation and re-traumatisation of being questioned on the stand by their abuser, and I am glad that we are putting an end to this blatantly abusive practice.

None the less, I am concerned that the current provisions overlook a scenario that we are likely to see in the family courts. Clause 63 does not currently apply to a conviction or caution that is spent. This is for the purposes of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. I understand the motivations behind not further punishing an offender past the time when they are considered rehabilitated, yet we know that domestic abuse involves patterns of behaviour that will not necessarily be interrupted or indeed stopped by a conviction. Thanks to data from SafeLives, we know that a quarter of high-harm perpetrators are repeat offenders, with some having at least six different victims. In other parts of the Bill, we will debate the need for an effective perpetrator strategy that will undoubtedly seek to improve our interventions post conviction.

Proceedings in the family courts can go on for years and may well continue past the time when a conviction or caution has been spent, especially if other convictions or cautions occurred. However, unless some sort of intervention has been made with the perpetrator, the risk could well remain. I raise this scenario to suggest not that we should further punish, but that such risks have not been fully considered. If there was one key takeaway from the Ministry of Justice Expert Panel on Harm report, it was that there are systemic issues with how risk is identified and managed in the family courts in relation to domestic abuse.

I therefore ask my noble friend the Minister whether he considers that the proposals in the Bill as drafted will ensure that such risk is properly managed in cases where convictions or cautions have been spent. I suggest that this provision needs to be reviewed and that extra safeguards such as risk assessments should perhaps be introduced in such cases.

Photo of Baroness Redfern Baroness Redfern Conservative

My Lords, I am pleased to follow my noble friend Lady Newlove and I warmly congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill. In doing so, I am pleased to have the opportunity to voice my support for its aims, in particular the proposals to reform the family court and provide protection measures for victims suffering domestic abuse. Even going to court is a harrowing and daunting process which can cause significant distress when a victim comes face to face with their perpetrator, even when the engagement is indirect. Measures must be in place to ensure the provision of separate entrances to the court building, as we heard earlier, and separate waiting rooms.

We know that domestic abuse comes in many traits. It is based not only on physical violence but on emotional, coercive, controlling or even economic abuse. Perpetrators of abuse should be inhibited from cross-examining their victims in person. Perpetrators should be prevented from directly or indirectly engaging with a victim during family court proceedings, particularly as many victims fear false accusations of parental alienation, which clearly has prevented many telling their personal stories. Protective screens in a court setting help to shield victims from their alleged abuser and prevent intimidation, as do live links, evidence-giving in private and greater emphasis on reassuring abuse victims, particularly children, who are always victims. These new measures will help to achieve the best result for those children.

Having received many briefings and personal testimonies, victims eagerly await new protective measures, so that the reporting of victims being re-victimised and retraumatised within the family court setting is stopped. The Bill must deliver a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform our national response for domestic abuse victims and, in achieving the right support for those victims, will go a long way to helping them rebuild their lives. Importantly, they will be listened to.

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, I agree with the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Redfern, in a broader context. On the particular issue in this group, I have listened very carefully to the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, reinforced by the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove. The noble Lord talked about a risk assessment before cross-examination if someone has a history of abuse. Presumably he is referring to somebody with a history of abuse but whose convictions are spent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. The noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, talked about repeat offenders. Repeat offending is very common when it comes to domestic abuse, but I wonder whether a perpetrator with a history of abuse, a repeat offender, is less likely to have spent convictions or cautions.

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act is an important piece of legislation that allows offenders to move on from their previous offending, but my understanding is that if a court decides that justice cannot be done without the conviction or caution being taken into account, the court can take account of a spent conviction. This potentially means that a court could prevent cross- examination of a victim of domestic abuse if it decided that a spent conviction or caution was relevant.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s understanding of the legislation as it is. We have no objection to the Government’s amendments in this group.

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

My Lords, I will begin with the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, to which the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, so ably spoke, and will then turn to the government amendments, which deal with various technical and drafting changes to the same clause.

As has been explained to the Committee, Amendment 114, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, would remove a qualification of the automatic prohibition on cross-examination in family proceedings by those convicted of, cautioned for or charged with specified offences, and their cross-examination by the victim or alleged victim. The removal of this qualification would mean that spent convictions and cautions under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 would continue automatically to trigger the prohibition, irrespective of how old they may be or how circumstances might have changed. I respectfully agree with the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, that the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act is a very important provision. It enables a line to be drawn and people to move on.

It is in that context that, at the moment, the form of the Bill is that spent convictions and cautions should automatically trigger the prohibition only where evidence in relation to the conviction or caution is admissible in relation to the current family proceedings. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, reminded us, and as the Government fully acknowledge, the damage caused by domestic abuse may often last for decades, sometimes a lifetime, and well beyond the point at which a conviction or caution is spent. One must also consider the point made by my noble friend Lady Redfern, that the court process is daunting, especially for victims of abuse. Therefore, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, is right to test the adequacy of Clause 63 in guarding against cross-examination which remains inappropriate despite convictions or cautions being spent. I am sure that all Members of the Committee will have been moved by the personal testimony of my noble friend Lady Newlove, when she explained the effect that such cross-examination can have.

However, the Government believe that Clause 63 provides adequate protection in such circumstances. We must bear in mind that the automatic prohibition on cross-examination is also triggered where a protective injunction is in place—that is the force of the new Section 31S—or where prescribed evidence of domestic abuse is provided to the court; that is the force of the new Section 31T. Moreover, and of greater importance here, given the sometimes more historical nature of abuse, is what we intend should become Section 31U of the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984. This is an important provision, which provides context against which the noble Lord’s amendment should be considered.

New Section 31U is in deliberately broad terms and provides for a wide discretion to meet the particular facts and circumstances of the case before the court. It enables the court, either in response to an application or of its own motion, to prohibit cross-examination where it would diminish the quality of evidence or cause significant distress, so long as to do so is not contrary to the interests of justice. Any such direction will remain in place until the witness is discharged, unless it is revoked by the court in specified circumstances; for example, if circumstances have materially altered. Therefore, to answer the point made by my noble friend Lady Newlove, we consider the Bill sufficient in cases of spent convictions, because that provision enables the court to impose the ban if it appears to the court that the two conditions in new subsection 1(b) are met. That provision would therefore also deal with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, concerning cases of past injunctions or restraining orders. New Section 31U is a very broad provision that enables the court to respond to the facts of a case and ensure that a suitable order is made. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, that it is important that the court has this ability, for the reasons that I have set out, under new Section 31U. I hope that this gives the Committee, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, what they sought, which, according to my note, was clarity and assurance. I hope that I have provided both.

I am not going to say very much about the government amendments because there are short explanations printed in the Marshalled List, but I shall run through them briefly. Amendment 115 amends the definition of conviction to a conviction “by or” before a court. This is to provide consistency with provisions around convictions elsewhere in the Bill. Amendments 116 to 119 make some changes to the references to convictions in service disciplinary proceedings. Some proceedings under service law lead not to a conviction but to a finding of guilt or a finding that a charge has been proved. In addition, a person will sometimes be convicted of an offence under the Service Disciplinary Act, known as SDA, under a transitional order made as a result of the repeal of earlier Armed Forces legislation. These amendments simply bring the references in the Bill to these types of convictions in line with the most recent precedent set by Section 65 of the Sentencing Act 2020. Finally, Amendment 120 corrects the reference to Section 80 of the Sentencing Code in the current text of the Bill, which is incorrect, for which I apologise. This amendment corrects the reference to Section 82.

I return to the principal amendment before the Committee, Amendment 114 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. For the reasons I have set out, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, on his behalf, will find himself able to withdraw it.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 2:30 pm, 3rd February 2021

I thank the Minister for his considered response, which I appreciate. I also thank other noble Lords who spoke in this debate for their contributions, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, for adding her name to Amendment 114.

I said at the beginning that this is a probing amendment intended to gain clarity and assurances that where a domestic abuse conviction or caution has been spent, other protections against cross-examination in person would apply to prevent a victim suddenly being open to cross-examination in person by a perpetrator with a history of abuse. In his considered response, the Minister sought to give that clarity and those assurances. I shall reflect further on what he said in response to this probing amendment. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 114 withdrawn.