Domestic abuse protection orders otherwise than on application

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 10th June 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Clause 28 makes provision for the court to make a domestic abuse protection order of its own volition during other ongoing proceedings that do not have to be domestic abuse-related. It is an important provision that shows the flexibility of the legislation.

The family court will have the power to do so in cases where both the victim and the alleged abuser are parties to the proceedings, which means that the family court will be able to make an order in other ongoing proceedings where the court becomes aware that an order would be beneficial. For example, if an issue of domestic abuse is raised during ongoing child contact proceedings, the victim would not have to make a separate application to the court to obtain an order. Instead, the court can make an order of its own volition as it sees necessary. That is an important element of flexibility, and indeed robustness, built into the legislation.

In criminal courts—I am conscious that we have expertise here in the form of a former magistrate, which is excellent—as with the current restraining order, the court will be able to make a domestic abuse protection order on either conviction or acquittal. To that extent it is similar to a restraining order, which can also apply in the event of an acquittal. Importantly, however, the DAPO is an improvement on the current restraining order because it can impose positive requirements as well as prohibitions on the perpetrator. All Committee members will recognise that, although we of course want to protect victims first and foremost, we also want to stop further abuse happening, so anything that can be done to ensure that people are rehabilitated and see the error of their ways is a positive thing for society as well as, of course, for the victim.

In the case of a conviction, that will allow the court to, for example, set an order with a longer duration than the sentence passed, to ensure that the victim receives the protection they need beyond the length of their sentence. In the case of an acquittal, it will ensure that the victim still receives protection if the court thinks that is necessary.

The court will also be able to make a DAPO of its own volition during other ongoing civil proceedings where both the victim and the alleged abuser are parties to the proceedings.

We will specify the type of civil proceedings in regulations, but initially we expect it to cover civil proceedings in which issues of domestic abuse are most likely to be raised or revealed in evidence, such as housing-related proceedings.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I feel that, now Minister Chalk is on his feet, I should have some things to say; I do not want to leave him out.

I cannot say how important the idea that the court can put in place an order on acquittal in these circumstances is to somebody like me, who has watched many cases fall apart over the years. I am always slightly jealous of the Scottish system of not proven, because in too many cases in the area of violence against women and girls, it may well be that the balance of evidence needed cannot be provided either at the magistrates court or at the Crown court in these circumstances, but there is still gross fear among all involved that the fact that it is not proven does not mean that it did not happen.

The idea that, on acquittal, courts could put these orders in place is a huge step forward, ideologically and politically speaking. My concern—I am almost doing myself an injustice on what I am going to say about some of the amendments later—is what the Ministry of Justice foresees as a review mechanism to ensure where this is going, how it is working and how regularly the family courts are dishing out such orders.

If everybody was like Essex police force, I would be jumping for joy. I do not hope for this, but maybe one day somebody will perpetrate a crime against me in Essex and I will see how brilliant the force is at orders, as we heard from the evidence earlier. What worries me is whose responsibility it will be, after a year or two years—even after the pilot scheme—between the Ministry of Justice, the head of the family courts structure and the chief prosecutor at the head of the Crown Prosecution Service, to see how readily these orders are being used in our courts.

I have already said this once today, but often people like me put in annoying questions to people like the Minister, such as, “Can you tell me how many times this has been used in these circumstances?”, and very often the answer that we receive back is, “We do not collect this data nationally”, or, “We do not hold this data in the Department.” I want a sense of how we are going to monitor this, because while I know this just looks like words on paper, to people like me it is deeply, deeply important that the courts could take this role.

However, I have seen too many times that, even the powers that the courts have—certainly the family courts, which no doubt we will come on to tomorrow—are not always used wisely and well, so I want an understanding of how specifically we are going to monitor the use of the courts giving out the orders, which is new in this instance. How are we going to test that it is working and try to improve its use? I would be very interested in even just a basic data gathering each year of how many were done on acquittal, how many were done on conviction and how many were done in family court proceedings where both parties were part of proceedings.

With regard to the family court, and in fact in all these circumstances—whether it is a notice or an order; whether a police officer has to make a decision there on the doorstep or we are talking about orders—how are we going to deal with some of the “he said, she said”? I have seen an awful lot of counter-claims in the family courts. Often somebody will talk about being victimised as part of domestic abuse, and it becomes: “Well, actually, she was domestically abusing me,” or, “He was domestically abusing me.” I wonder whether any thought has been given to how, in giving out DAPOs in a family court, we do not end up with potentially two people, both with an order against each other—or maybe that could happen.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 2:30 pm, 10th June 2020

I will say a couple of things. First, I completely agree with the hon. Lady’s observation that the powers are very stark but very welcome. It is important to note why they are in place. It is not uncommon that cases cannot necessarily be proven to the criminal standard: beyond reasonable doubt. The tribunal has to be satisfied that it is sure; however, there can be serious lingering concerns that, were it to apply a test of the balance of probabilities, it would have no difficulty in finding that the abuse had taken place.

It is to cater for those circumstances that the courts can now impose really quite robust measures to ensure the protection of complainants and the rehabilitation of perpetrators. They are important powers, and benches and courts will want to exercise them wisely. Inevitably, they apply to individuals who have not been convicted of any offence. The courts will therefore need to tread carefully to ensure that justice is done, but they have shown themselves well able to do that for many centuries.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley made the point very well that, for some of the issues that we are tackling with the legislation, the powers already existed in other pieces of legislation, but the courts, in their conservatism, refused to exercise them. As my hon. Friend asked, will the Minister ensure that his Department gives the right steer to the courts, which the president of the family division can translate into something that is actionable on the front line in family courts up and down the country?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Ultimately, he will understand why I say that a very proper distinction exists between the legislature, the Executive and the judiciary. The judiciary are proudly and profoundly independent, and they will take their course and impose the orders if they think that it is in in the interest of justice to do so. Of course, we must ensure that courts are properly aware of the powers available to them. I have no doubt that the president of the family division, and indeed the Lord Chief Justice in the criminal sphere, will use their good offices to ensure that that takes place.

On the point that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley made about whether we can look after the event to check that the powers are being used, first, there is, as she knows, the issue of the pilot. That provides a significant period to establish whether the orders are being taken up. Secondly, the Office for National Statistics has an annual publication of DA statistics that includes the different orders, so we will be able to get a sense of the extent to which they are being applied.

I hope that this will not sound overly fastidious, but one should not necessarily automatically read reluctance into a low level of use in one part of the country compared with others. It may be, because each case turns on the facts, that it was not appropriate in those circumstances. However, as a general observation, we will keep an eye on it, and there will be data on which the hon. Lady will no doubt robustly hold the Government to account. I beg to move.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 28 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

For the benefit of the Committee, and perhaps for the Minister, I should say that you do not need to beg to move stand part clauses, because they are already in the Bill; the only thing that you have to move are the amendments—but you, sir, are one of many Ministers who make that mistake.