Amendment 121

Domestic Abuse Bill - Committee (4th Day) – in the House of Lords at 2:30 pm on 3rd February 2021.

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Lord Rosser:

Moved by Lord Rosser

121: Clause 63, page 44, line 29, at end insert—“31VA Direction to prohibit direct or indirect engagement: evidence of domestic abuse(1) In family proceedings, where specified evidence is adduced that a person who is a party to the proceedings has been the victim of domestic abuse carried out by another party, the court may give a direction prohibiting the latter party from directly or indirectly engaging with the victim during proceedings, if the court deems any such engagement is causing significant distress to the victim.(2) In this section—“domestic abuse” has the meaning given by section 1 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021;“specified evidence” means evidence specified, or of a description specified, in regulations made by the Lord Chancellor.(3) Regulations under subsection (2) may provide that any evidence which satisfies the court that domestic abuse, or domestic abuse of a specified description, has occurred is specified evidence for the purposes of this section.(4) A direction under this section may be made by the court— (a) on an application made by a party to the proceedings, or(b) of its own motion.(5) In determining whether the significant distress condition is met in the case of a party, the court must have regard to, among other things—(a) any views expressed by the victim;(b) any views expressed by the other party;(c) any behaviour by the party in relation to the victim in respect of which the court is aware that a finding of fact has been made in the proceedings or in any other proceedings;(d) any behaviour by the party at any stage of the proceedings, both generally and in relation to the victim;(e) any behaviour by the victim at any stage of the proceedings, both generally and in relation to the party;(f) any relationship (of whatever nature) between the victim and the party.(6) If the court decides that there are no alternative measures to prevent engagement which causes distress, the court must—(a) invite the party to the proceedings to arrange for a qualified legal representative to act for the party during the court proceedings, and(b) require the party to the proceedings to notify the court, by the end of a period specified by the court, of whether a qualified legal representative is to act for the party for that purpose.(7) Subsection (8) applies if, by the end of the period specified under subsection (6)(b), either—(a) the party has notified the court that no qualified legal representative is to act for the party during the court proceedings, or(b) no notification has been received by the court and it appears to the court that no qualified legal representative is to act for the party during the court proceedings.(8) The court must consider whether it is necessary in the interests of justice for the party to be represented by a qualified legal representative appointed by the court to represent the interests of the party.(9) If the court decides that it is, the court must appoint a qualified legal representative (chosen by the court) to represent the party.(10) If the court appoints a qualified legal representative to represent one party, and the other party to proceedings is not represented, the court must consider whether it is necessary in the interests of justice for the other party also to be represented by a qualified legal representative to ensure a fair process.(11) If the court decides that it is necessary to appoint representation under subsection (10), the court must choose and appoint a qualified legal representative to represent the other party.”Member’s explanatory statementThese changes would give courts the discretion to prevent a perpetrator directly or indirectly engaging with a victim during family court proceedings, where such engagement is causing distress, and to appoint a legal representative to represent the perpetrator in court, if that is necessary to prevent distress to the victim.

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

My Lords, this amendment would build on the provisions on cross-examination that the Government have introduced into the Bill. In particular, it seeks to extend the support available to reflect the structure of the family court. Clause 63 provides the court with the power to appoint a publicly funded qualified legal representative to act for a party who is prohibited from cross-examining a witness in person. The court has the power to prohibit cross-examination where there has been a conviction or charge for a domestic abuse-related offence as well as in cases where it would diminish the quality of the evidence or cause significant distress to the person being cross-examined, an issue to which I think the Minister referred in the discussion on the previous amendment.

These changes are, of course, very welcome. However, the structure of family proceedings differs significantly from that of criminal proceedings. In criminal proceedings the parties will normally come together only once at trial. During the course of family proceedings, both parties are more likely to be in attendance at court for a number of hearings before the cross-examination process. The Bill as drafted would appear to leave parties without support for potentially a number of hearings and would only provide a legal representative for a relatively small proportion of the proceedings. The Magistrates’ Association supports this amendment, and we thank it for its work on these issues.

As my noble friend Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede indicated at Second Reading, these factors raise two principal issues: first, whether the advocate is able to their job effectively if they are involved in only a small part of the proceedings, and secondly—crucially—whether a litigant in person can navigate the rest of the court process and what impact that has on cases involving domestic abuse and outcomes for children.

Amendment 121 would provide that in family proceedings where there is evidence of domestic abuse, the court may prevent a party directly or indirectly engaging with the victim during proceedings, not only at cross-examination, if the court deems that any such engagement is causing significant distress to the victim. In those cases, the court must invite the party to arrange for a qualified legal representative or appoint a qualified legal representative to represent them. It also provides that if representation is appointed for one party, which would usually be the perpetrator in this case, the court must consider the need to appoint representation for the other party to ensure fair process. This speaks to the wider issue of the lack of legal support in private law proceedings.

In cases which are by their nature incredibly sensitive and can cause significant distress where there is a history of abuse, the court process is complex and difficult to understand for many. Litigants in person can find it difficult to follow the instructions of the court or to comply with all the elements of a court order. I know that it is the experience of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede that without the right support in place, people will often be driven simply to give up, lose heart and drop out of the legal process. We believe that appropriate legal assistance should be provided throughout this process. Cross-examination is not, as my noble friend put it, the only “flashpoint” in proceedings.

The amendment speaks to a problem that the Government have already recognised and decided to act upon: the need to prevent inappropriate engagement between parties in court and to provide suitable legal representation where there is evidence of abuse. Amendment 121 would simply structure those provisions which the Government already support to reflect accurately the structure of the family proceedings to which they apply, to which I have already referred.

Finally, I shall not detain the Committee by repeating some of the arguments I have just made on the next group in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Marks, but I welcome the aims of his amendments and look forward to that debate. On this amendment, I look forward, I hope, to a positive reply from the Minister.

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, on the excellent way in which he has presented the amendment in place of his noble friend Lord Ponsonby. He has been able to use the great experience of his noble friend in family proceedings in illustration of the amendment.

I strongly support the amendment because I feel certain that, while cross-examination is important, contact between the parties in a family proceedings, although much more spread out, is of critical importance. Things such as the arrangements for children to be with one parent or the other are often extremely difficult to work out. It requires personal and direct contact between the parties, because it is next to impossible to accommodate the needs of the parties without it. It is therefore extremely important that this is done with a fair amount of detail to allow representation to be made.

That is, in principle, already part of the government Bill, but the Magistrates’ Association—of which the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, is a good example—has great experience of how it should work, and the amendment seeks to work that out in some detail. I warmly support it because it is very well done. As I said on a previous occasion, the fact that the Magistrates’ Association supports it is a powerful reason for us to support it too.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Immigration)

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Marks will speak to most of the amendments regarding court proceedings, but I am glad to be able to say a word on this one. I acknowledge that the Government recognise the need for measures to support victims of domestic abuse in various proceedings. Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, I think the very fact that Amendment 121 was tabled by a practitioner who has already shared with the Committee a lot of extremely useful experience, as he does on all occasions, and from the Magistrates’ Association, whose briefings I have always found very useful, pretty much makes the point. It is certainly very persuasive.

As I read it, the amendment would address what is meant by “engagement” in a particular context. As the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, explained—his explanation was clear—in family cases the proceedings are generally not a single event but comprise a series of hearings. They are quite unlike proceedings in the criminal court or the civil court, where a discrete claim is dealt with. To use a bit of current jargon, I read this as enabling the court to be agile in applying, as it goes along, appropriate measures and making directions as it becomes clear that they are needed.

In an attempt not to oppose the amendment but to develop it, I have been wondering how it would—or maybe will—operate in practice. One assumes that there will be a need to find a lawyer for whatever reason, probably financial, and that the parties will have already considered that. Who will pay the lawyer, and pay enough for them to do a complete job, not just coming in at the last minute but understanding the whole background to the proceedings and taking full instructions? If the lawyer is appointed by the court, to whom is he responsible? Is the person he represents a client for all purposes? I absolutely take the point about the difficulty that litigants in person have, so finding ways to assist can only be to the good. I hope that these proposals can be taken forward.

Photo of Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Labour 2:45 pm, 3rd February 2021

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Rosser for so comprehensively outlining the purpose behind Amendment 121 and the very strong case for it. I also thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, for his clear explanation.

It is of course important from the legal perspective to look at the different situations in the family courts and the way in which different stages in the proceedings need to be accommodated. I also feel that the amendment is important because of the potential human impact of the absence of such a provision. Legal representation is important, as is the ability of the court to make determinations where distress has been, or could be, caused to the victim. It is also important to anticipate the impact on victims who might choose to go down this route if such a provision is not in place.

The fear and intimidation involved in advance of a decision to begin proceedings in family courts, or to continue with them after they have started, can be very daunting for any victim but perhaps in particular for a victim of domestic abuse. Therefore, putting these provisions in place would help encourage those who need to take a stand and make the move, trying to get out of their current circumstances and into a better place for them and the children. It could encourage them rather than put them off continuing proceedings or beginning them in the first place.

I want to ask a specific question about the impact on children. Over the years, I have seen many cases where intimidation at this stage has not necessarily been directed at the former partner or wife of the abuser, but at the children in order to indirectly intimidate the former partner or wife. Although we have clearly indicated in Clause 3 that children should be properly recognised as victims of domestic abuse, I would like the mover and supporters of the amendment to clarify that, either directly or indirectly, children affected by such distress would be covered by the provisions at the start of the proposed new clause.

For example, would the definition of children as victims mean that any distress caused to children fell under this provision? If not, would intimidation of children be deemed an indirect cause of distress? If the Government are not content to include the amendment or similar provisions in the final Bill, I would be particularly interested to hear from the Minister, on their behalf, how children who might be affected in this way around the family courts, whether outside or even within the court setting if they have been asked to play some kind of role by either their parent or the court, will be protected if this provision is not in place. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

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

My Lords, we support this amendment for the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, as amplified by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, my noble friend Baroness Hamwee and the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale.

This amendment recognises that in cases involving domestic abuse, just as in any litigation, engagement between the parties is not limited to conducting the case, giving evidence, cross-examining witnesses and making submissions to the judge. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, pointed out that the inadequacy of arrangements that govern cross-examination alone make such arrangements difficult to justify.

There is often a need for the parties to consider and discuss the conduct and progress of the case, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, pointed out. That is usually done through their advocates. Yet when the parties are perpetrator and victim of domestic abuse, and are unrepresented, the need for engagement can become an occasion for intimidating behaviour or bullying of the victim by the perpetrator. That need not even be deliberate, though it often is. Even if intimidation is not explicit in court, it may be effected by implied threats of what might happen later, or even by fear on the victim’s part—even if without justification —of what might happen later.

As discussed in earlier groups, the mere presence of the parties together in court can cause distress, intimidation, or trauma to victims. The outcome can be that victims are deterred from bringing proceedings at all. The experience of the proceedings can be grossly traumatic, to the extent of causing lasting harm, and just outcomes can be made that much more difficult to achieve. So, it is completely right that the court should be able to prohibit engagement by a party that unduly distresses the victim in the way set out in this amendment, whether that engagement be direct by the perpetrator or indirect through others. Yet, if the parties have no means to engage at all, there may be opportunities missed for resolving conflict or, at least, for making the issues clearer and enabling the court to achieve safer outcomes.

In cases where the parties are not represented, it is obviously sensible for there to be provision for representation to be arranged. As the amendment proposes, that should involve, in appropriate cases, the instruction of a court-appointed lawyer—not just for the perpetrator but for the victim as well. That is what the amendment proposes and I firmly believe it is right to do so. For my part, I believe that justice would be best done by ensuring that full legal aid is available for both parties to domestic abuse proceedings throughout those proceedings, which often last through several hearings, as the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, my noble friend Baroness Hamwee and the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, have said. The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, also highlighted the real risk of deterring litigants from bringing or pursuing proceedings once they are under way, by the absence of arrangements for representation.

This amendment does not go as far as we would like, but I know many noble Lords believe that full legal aid for both parties should be the outcome. Meanwhile, it would fill an important gap by preventing intimidation of victims by perpetrators during the course of proceedings, while keeping the door open to engagement between lawyers, which may smooth a path to resolution.

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 Rosser, has explained, this amendment —to which my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern has added his, if I may respectfully say, very weighty name—seeks to expand the scope of the prohibition of cross-examination provided for in Clause 63 by prohibiting the perpetrator from engaging directly or indirectly with the victim during proceedings where that engagement would cause them significant distress. It goes on ultimately to provide for the potential appointment of a legal representative, chosen by the court, to represent both parties to ensure a fair process in the interests of justice in such cases. I can assure the Committee, in particular in response to the points made by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern and others, that because this amendment has been supported by the Magistrates’ Association, we have given it very careful consideration.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, explained, I am as every bit as concerned as her, and indeed the noble Lord who is proposing the amendment, to ensure that domestic abuse victims are adequately protected in the family courts. It is for that reason that the Government are already taking decisive steps to act on the recommendations of the Expert Panel on Harm in the Family Courts, in response to which we published our implementation plan in June 2020.

The Bill contains various measures designed to protect domestic abuse victims in family proceedings and across the other jurisdictions. In that context, I bear in mind the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale: the human impact that domestic abuse has, and that it can require some bravery to go to and appear in court in those circumstances, a point also made by the noble Lord, Lord Marks. Therefore, within the court environment, our provisions on special measures made it clear that the victims of domestic abuse and other parties or witnesses are eligible for special measures such as a screen during proceedings, where the court is satisfied that the quality of their evidence is likely to be diminished due to their vulnerability. In that context, on the point put to me by the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale, regarding the position of children, Clause 3(2) provides that any reference in the Bill to a victim of domestic abuse

“includes a reference to a child who … sees or hears, or experiences the effects of, the abuse, and … is related to A or B.”

Therefore, the Bill is structured very much with victims of domestic abuse, who may include children, firmly in mind.

It is not entirely clear from the noble Lord’s amendment whether the intention is that “direct or indirect engagement” during proceedings be confined to the court setting, by which I mean what goes on in the courtroom itself, or extend more widely for their duration, as set out in debate by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern and repeated by the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames. There is often a need for what my noble and learned friend called personal and direct contact between parties in such proceedings. In that regard, one must bear in mind that under Part 3 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010, the court can make a participation direction. That can include the use of special measures, which are a series of provisions to help a party or witness to participate or give evidence in court proceedings. That is a range of measures available both to parties and witnesses to enable them to participate in an appropriate manner.

Beyond that, the courts have a range of protective orders, such as non-molestation orders and restraining orders, that can be made to protect victims when they are not within the confines of the court building. In addition, when introduced by the Bill, domestic abuse protection orders can be used to protect victims of domestic abuse outside the courtroom during proceedings. That is because the DAPO brings together the strongest elements of the existing protective orders into a single comprehensive and very flexible order that we believe will provide more effective and longer-term protection than the existing protective orders for victims of domestic abuse and their children. I underline the point that there may be circumstances in which children are also victims. So, for example, if children are giving evidence inside court, special measures may well be applicable and the prohibition on cross-examination may also apply.

I turn to one of the central points made by the amendment. It deviates significantly from the underlying principles underpinning Clause 63 in relation to cross-examination. I shall make three short points, some of which have been anticipated by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. First—and I suspect I will be dealing with this point in more detail in the next group of amendments—the clause is explicit that any legal representative appointed by the court to carry out cross-examination will not be responsible to the party in whose place they ask questions. By contrast, in the amendment it is the clear intention that the advocate will represent the parties where engagement is prohibited and will owe them all the duties of a lawyer to his or her client.

The second deviation from the principles underlying Clause 63 is that the steps that must be followed before the court appoints a legally qualified representative are different. There is no requirement in the amendment that the court must consider alternatives to legal representation before inviting the parties to do so. By contrast, the clause makes that an express requirement.

Thirdly, and significantly, the amendment does not make any provision as to how a legal representative appointed by the court where engagement is prohibited will be paid. There is no indication as to whether they are to be paid by the parties or, as will be the case for those appointed to conduct cross-examination where that is prohibited by the party, from the public purse.

In that context, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, raised the broader issue of funding. I probably should not go into this in too much detail, given the narrower confines of this amendment, but the noble Lord will know that we are currently conducting a review of the means test with regard to legal aid, as part of which we are specifically considering the experiences of victims of domestic abuse. We have made a public commitment to look at the capital thresholds for victims of domestic abuse where these apply. However, at the moment, the legal aid agency is able to apply for an eligibility waiver for victims of domestic abuse who are applying for an injunction or other order for protection. Therefore, an applicant for such an order may be eligible for legal aid even if they have income or capital above the thresholds in the means test, although they may have to pay a financial contribution towards their legal costs. That review is ongoing, and we would seek to implement any final recommendations as soon as practicable after a public consultation.

Coming back to the main thrust of the amendment, however, for the reasons that I have set out I do not believe that a new prohibition on direct or indirect engagement is necessary, given the current and new protections in the Bill. However, we will monitor their effectiveness and continue to assess whether any further measures should be necessary. Therefore, irrespective for these purposes of the points that I have mentioned of a lack of clarity in the amendment as to how legal representatives would be remunerated as well as the lack of a requirement to consider alternatives to legal representation, for the reasons that I have set out as points of principle, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

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

I again thank the Minister for his considered response, particularly his comments at the end, which clarified in my mind the basis of the Government’s lack of enthusiasm for the amendment. As the Minister has clarified, the Government do not believe that the terms of the amendment are needed because the issues raised are covered by other measures in the Bill or existing provisions. It is not a case of certain parts of the amendment not being particularly well worded or the wording leaving certain issues unresolved.

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate for their contributions. I particularly thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, for adding his name to the amendment. Clearly, we will want to reflect further on what the Minister has said, particularly the reasons for not accepting the amendment—namely, that the issues raised are covered by other measures in the Bill and by existing provisions. We will want to reflect on that and then determine whether to bring this matter back at a later stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 121 withdrawn.

Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, we now come to the group beginning with Amendment 122. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate, and that anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.