Amendment 122

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

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Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames:

Moved by Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames

122: Clause 63, page 45, leave out lines 16 and 17 and insert— “(7) A qualified legal representative appointed by the court under subsection (6) is responsible to the party, but must cross-examine the witness having regard to such directions as the Court may give to protect the witness from significant distress or to prevent the quality of the witness’s evidence from being diminished.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment is intended to maintain the responsibility of the legally qualified representative to the party in whose interests the cross-examination is conducted while ensuring it is conducted with proper regard for risk of distress to the witness and risk that the quality of the witness’s evidence might be diminished.

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

My Lords, this group of amendments addresses the role of a legally qualified representative appointed by the court to conduct cross-examination under Clause 63 in family proceedings or Clause 64 in civil proceedings. The amendments also address the need for the availability of legal aid for both parties in domestic abuse proceedings.

Dealing first with those amendments relating to the role of court-appointed legal representatives, in each such case a party, who typically, but not always, will be the perpetrator, is prohibited under the Bill from cross-examining a witness directly. In any such case, the court will have considered whether there is a satisfactory alternative means of enabling the witness to be cross-examined or of obtaining the evidence that the witness would have given without cross-examination. For the moment, I find difficulty in seeing exactly how that would work unless there were other witnesses who could give evidence to the same effect as the evidence that the witness might have given.

If the court cannot find alternative ways of getting the witness to give evidence before the court, it will have invited the party who, but for the prohibition, would have conducted the cross-examination to instruct a lawyer within a specified time to conduct the cross-examination instead. If the party does not instruct such a lawyer—usually, one supposes, because of financial constraints—the court will consider appointing a qualified legal representative

“to represent the interests of the party” to conduct the cross-examination

“in the interests of the party”.

The proposed provisions are complicated but unobjectionable so far. However, I am concerned by the proposals, in both family and civil proceedings, that such an advocate

“is not responsible to the party”,

a point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, in the last group but which he politely deferred for consideration to this one. I regard this as a dangerous precedent that is inimical to a fundamental principle of our court process, which is that the advocate owes a duty to his client, although that duty is at all times subject to the duty that the advocate owes to the court.

The analogy that applies to what is proposed here is with special advocates, who are appointed for cases before the Special Immigration Appeals Commission or various other cases where issues of national security are involved. In such cases, the reason why those appointed as special advocates do not carry a responsibility to the persons whose interests they represent is that they are specifically prohibited from disclosing to those persons the security-sensitive material that is being disclosed to them—in other words, the special advocates are effectively sworn to secrecy. In those national security cases the special advocates cannot take instructions upon the secret material disclosed to them, nor can they consider with those whom they represent how to deal with or respond to such material. In those circumstances they have an independence that is treated as precluding a responsibility to the persons whose interests they represent.

The position is quite different here. No issues of national security are involved. Secrecy is not an issue. No material is withheld from the party represented. There is no bar on full discussion between the advocate and that party. Indeed, if justice is to be done, there is an imperative for the advocate to take full instructions and to consider, in the light of the evidence and the party’s account of the facts, what questions should be asked.

The starting point has to be that the advocate owes a responsibility to the client and I see no reason to depart from that. The advocate should, for example, owe the client a duty of care, and a duty to take instructions accurately, read the papers carefully and approach the case on the basis of the client’s instructions. The advocate should be answerable to the client if he or she performs negligently, does not do the work, or fails to understand or appreciate the import of the evidence. Of course there will be some questions that it would be improper for the advocate to ask. In that event, it is for the advocate to advise the client and, if necessary, to seek the direction of the judge before putting such questions. It should be for the judge to determine what questioning is permissible and appropriate.

That is why my Amendments 122 and 127 would provide for the cross-examination to be conducted subject to

“such directions as the Court may give to protect the witness from significant distress or to prevent the quality of the witness’s evidence from being diminished.”

Those are the considerations that the court has to have regard to in appointing the advocate. In most cases, I do not believe that directions such as that are likely to be necessary. The intimidation of a victim in these cases usually arises from the presence of the perpetrator as cross-examiner and/or the style of his cross-examination. Once a sensitive advocate is conducting the cross-examination, attuned to the vulnerability of the witness and the advocate’s duty to the court, the risk of intimidation is reduced.

However, if there are areas where the advocate advises that particular questions or lines of questioning cross the line, that is usually on the ground that such questions are irrelevant or unhelpful. The party will usually accept the advocate’s advice, but if there are lines of questioning where the party persists in wishing to pursue questions that the advocate regards as inappropriate, it should be for the judge, not the advocate, to decide whether the questions may be asked. There is no good reason for removing the advocate’s responsibility to the client, fundamentally undermining that responsibility.

I have had the opportunity to discuss this issue with the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, and I am grateful to him for the attention he has given to it. I understand the Government’s position to be that where lawyers are appointed to conduct cross-examination in circumstances such as these, such lawyers should, in a way, be independent, so that they may decline to ask questions which the party whose interests they represent wishes to have put to the witness. They should be able to say to the client, “I’m not putting that”, without having to be answerable to the client for that decision. At first blush I see the force of that, but on analysis it is quite unfair, because the party represented is in fact denied true representation, and such an arrangement blurs the function of the judge and the advocate, to which I referred. In proceedings of all types, judges will frequently rule questions out of order. That is all part of the trial process and I see no basis for changing it here.

Amendments 123 and 128 raise questions of assistance by court-appointed advocates and legal representation in domestic abuse proceedings more generally. They make broadly two points. The first is that an appointment of an advocate for the limited purpose of conducting a single cross-examination is unlikely significantly to enhance either the fairness of the proceedings or the chance of their leading to a just outcome—a point touched on in the last group.

The answer to this difficulty is that the court should be able to ensure that the advocate will remain in place for as long as needed in the proceedings to assist both the parties and the court to deal with the case justly, in line with the overriding objective, having regard, in family cases, to dealing with it justly and to any welfare issues involved. One can imagine the frustration that judges would feel when, having had the assistance of an experienced court-appointed advocate for the cross-examination of the victim, the advocate’s role in the case is brought to an end and the judge is left with the parties in court in as conflictual a situation as they were before the proceedings started and with no help in resolving it.

My second point is that the only real, lasting and just way to ensure that domestic abuse proceedings are genuinely fair is to ensure that legal aid is available to both parties. My amendments would allow the Lord Chancellor to ensure that, where the court appoints a lawyer for a party, regulations can provide for legal aid to be granted to either or both the parties for the remainder of the proceedings, irrespective of the restrictions contained in the LASPO Act, which is now under review.

A more generous view of legal aid in domestic abuse proceedings, and of the evidential and financial thresholds to qualify for it, has long been called for by the legal professions and almost everyone who knows this field. The review is of course helpful, but we fear it may not go far enough. I hope it does and that the Minister helps it on its way, but meanwhile I urge the Government to accept the amendments, or at least to consider them at this stage, and to come back on Report with proposals that meet our concerns. I beg to move.

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

The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, who was due to speak next, is still in the debate in Grand Committee, so I call the Minister.

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

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marks, for setting out the rationale for these amendments. As he said, I deferred my comments on the particular point of an advocate’s duty to this group because his amendments directly raise that issue. I am grateful to him for the discussions we had about this matter, as indeed we have had about several matters arising from the Bill.

Amendments 122 and 127 would have the same effect in relation to a qualified legal representative appointed by the court to conduct cross-examination in family and civil proceedings respectively. It is the Government’s intention that such a court-appointed representative is not responsible to any party. They are, in effect, appointed by and responsible to the court in relation to their conduct of the cross-examination, having regard to guidance issued by the Lord Chancellor in connection with this role under what we intend should become Section 31Y(1) of the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984.

As I think the noble Lord, Lord Marks, accepts, the amendments would alter fundamentally the representative’s role by making them responsible to the party who has been prohibited from carrying out such cross-examination. While the tabled amendments contain safeguards to counter the resulting tension between being responsible to the prohibited party on the one hand and needing to protect domestic abuse victims on the other by requiring the representative to have regard to protective directions issued by the judge, this does not affect the Government’s view that, as a matter of principle, the representative who has been appointed by the court should not be responsible to the party. That is particularly the case when that party could have, but has not, appointed his own lawyer. Had he done so, a court-appointed lawyer would not have been required and the lawyer appointed by him would have owed him a duty.

Therefore, the Government do not want this to become a client-lawyer relationship. The advocate is appointed for only one function: to ensure that the best evidence is obtained fairly from the witness in cases where the party is prohibited from conducting the cross-examination by themselves. Altering this and introducing such a relationship between the party and the advocate would, in the Government’s view, be a mistake.

The rules pertaining to the advocate scheme will be set out in statutory guidance and relevant procedural rules. Consistent with what I have been explaining to the Committee, the focus will be on ensuring that the function of a cross-examination is carried out—that the witness is questioned on the evidence that they have provided. Before these provisions are commenced, we will work with relevant stakeholders to develop and finalise statutory guidance, to be issued by the Lord Chancellor, for the appointed legal representatives to assist them in discharging this role. We will work with the appropriate rule committees to develop suitable court rules and practice directions to provide a clear structure and process for the operation of these provisions.

For those reasons, we take issue with the proposal in the amendment. Although I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Marks, said about SIAC and court-appointed advocates there, those are completely different circumstances and there is no read-across from SIAC to these provisions. The way that the Bill is set out reflects the Government’s deliberate intention and the clauses have been designed with this in mind.

The framework for the provision of publicly funded legal representation is set out in the LASPO Act. While I have listened carefully to the arguments made on this point, both today and in previous discussions, I do not agree that we should mix the different purposes of LASPO and these clauses as has been proposed. As anticipated by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, I refer to the review that I mentioned in the last debate.

Amendments 123 and 128 relate to the provision of legal aid. Legal aid is available for family cases where there is evidence of abuse, subject to domestic violence, or child abuse evidence requirements, and the relevant means and merits tests. We have expanded the acceptable forms of evidence and removed all time limits on providing that evidence. As I have said, we are also reviewing the means test. The Government are clear that victims of domestic abuse must have access to the help that they need, including to legal aid. The review of the means test is assessing the effectiveness with which that test protects access to justice. As I said in the last debate, we are specifically considering the experience of victims of domestic abuse. I will not repeat the other points I made in that context in the previous debate.

However, legal aid may also be available through the exceptional case funding scheme, where a failure to provide legal aid would breach or risk breaching the ECHR or retained enforceable EU rights. As I have explained, the Bill includes provisions that give the court a power, in specified circumstances, to appoint a publicly funded legal representative to conduct cross-examination. Where a prohibition on cross-examination applies, the court would first consider whether there are alternatives to cross-examination and invite the party to appoint a legal representative to conduct the cross-examination. In circumstances where the party does not, the court considers whether it is in the interests of justice so to appoint. Therefore, publicly funded legal representation is intended to conduct the cross-examination, but not to go beyond it. That is the sole reason why the advocate is appointed.

In that context, we must appreciate the need to protect against unnecessary expenditure of public funds or alteration of the legal aid regime without a wholesale and proper examination of the ramifications of doing so. In circumstances where this provision for a publicly funded advocate is put in the Bill for a limited and specific—if I can still use that phrase—purpose, it would be wrong in principle for us to conduct a review of legal aid provisions in Committee.

I fear that I may not have been able to persuade the noble Lord, as I was not able to persuade him earlier, of the merits of the Government’s approach. I am sure he will tell me that I have not, but I hope that I have been able to explain the Government’s approach and thinking on this issue. In those circumstances, I invite him to withdraw the amendment.

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

My Lords, unquestionably the Minister—to whom I am very grateful, for both his engagement and his considered and careful response—is right about one thing, which is that he has not convinced me of the difference in responsibility to the client between court-appointed advocates and normal lawyers. I accept that the role of legal representative would be altered by my amendments, and that is all to the good.

One point made by the Minister can be considered in a way that he did not. It is a precondition to the appointment of a legal representative by the court that the client or party who would have conducted the cross-examination, but for the prohibition, should have been given the opportunity to instruct his own lawyer. That lawyer would have had full responsibility to the client in the normal way—full duty of care, answerable in negligence and everything else. Generally, Members of the House will appreciate that the reason that that condition is not often met—in other words, the client does not appoint a lawyer—is lack of funds, not that he or she, usually he, does not wish for the lawyer to have a responsibility to the client. There is very little distinction to draw between the two cases, apart from the fact that the rich client gets the lawyer and the poor client has a court-appointed lawyer.

The Minister referred to the safeguards that I built into the amendments in their directions to the judge—

“such directions as the Court may give to protect the witness from significant distress or to prevent the quality of the witness’s evidence from being diminished.”

There may be further room for discussion about those directions and the guidelines within which cross-examination by a lawyer with a responsibility to the client could take place. I will carefully read the guidance that he mentions by which court-appointed lawyers will conduct their cross-examinations.

I completely reject the Minister’s explanation that SIAC involves different issues, as a justification for removing the responsibility. It is precisely because SIAC special advocates and their appointment involve different issues that the responsibility is removed. I explained that in opening. That point does not seem to have been treated with full understanding.

Of course I will withdraw this amendment to enable further review. The point about legal aid is one of accessibility. We know that there is a review under way and I accept that we should not be reviewing this question in Committee, but the problem is one of evidential and financial accessibility. Until both parties can be represented in domestic abuse proceedings, it is difficult to see that proper representation will be achieved. With those points, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 122 withdrawn.

Amendment 123 not moved.

Clause 63, as amended, agreed.

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 124. 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.

Clause 64: Prohibition of cross-examination in person in civil proceedings