“(3A) In cases where it is alleged that domestic abuse is involved, Chapter 1 of Part 2 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 (special measures directions in case of vulnerable and intimidated witnesses) applies to proceedings in the family court as it applies to criminal proceedings, but with any necessary modifications.”
This amendment extends statutory eligibility for special measures to the family court in cases where domestic abuse is involved.
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 45—Special measures (civil and family proceedings): domestic abuse—
“(1) In civil and family proceedings, a witness is eligible for assistance by virtue of this section if they were, or are at risk of being, the victim of domestic abuse from—
(a) another party to the proceedings; or
(b) the family member of another party to the proceedings.
(2) The court’s duty under subsection (1) applies as soon as allegations of domestic abuse are raised after the start of proceedings and continue until the resolution of the proceedings.
(3) In determining the measures to make available to the witness, the court should consider—
(a) whether one or more measures should be made available; and
(b) any views expressed by the witness.
(4) The measures referred to in this section are those which—
(a) prevent a witness from seeing another witness;
(b) allow a witness to participate in proceedings;
(c) allow a witness to give evidence by live link;
(d) provide for a witness to use a device to help communicate;
(e) provide for a witness to participate in proceedings with the assistance of an intermediary;
(f) provide for a witness to be questioned in court with the assistance of an intermediary; or
(g) do anything else provided for in Civil Procedure Rules or Family Procedure Rules.
(5) Rules of court made for the purposes of providing assistance to eligible witnesses shall apply—
(a) to the extent provided by the rules of court, and
(b) subject to any modifications provided by rules of court.
(6) In this section—
“the court” means the family court, county court or the High Court;
“witness”, in relation to any proceedings, includes a party to the proceedings;
“proceedings” means civil or family proceedings;
“live link” means a live television link or other arrangement whereby a witness or party, while absent from the courtroom or other place where the proceedings are being held, is able to see and hear a person there and to be seen and heard by the judge, legal representatives acting in the proceedings and other persons appointed to assist a witness or party.”
This new clause would ensure that victims of domestic abuse have access to special measures in both civil and family proceedings.
The Bill extends special measures in criminal courts, such as screens or video links, to include domestic abuse survivors. However, unfortunately, it does not ensure similar protections in civil and family courts. The amendment would extend eligibility for these measures to family courts in cases where domestic abuse is involved.
Special measures were originally implemented in criminal courts by the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, and are automatically provided to child witnesses, witnesses with mental or physical disabilities, complainants of sexual offences, or victims of serious crime who might also be regarded as intimidated, including victims of domestic abuse. However, in family courts, provision for the use of special measures is not currently based in legislation, but in the Family Procedure Rules 2010. Those rules set out the way in which courts should deal with family proceedings, and include practice directions intended to protect victims. Practice direction 12J sets out the procedure for members of the judiciary and provides for special measures.
In November 2017, the Ministry of Justice introduced a new practice direction setting out the recommended procedure for judges dealing with vulnerable persons in family proceedings, including those with concerns in relation to domestic abuse. It provides for special measures to ensure that the participation and quality of evidence of parties is not diminished. Practice direction 3AA, “Vulnerable persons: participation in proceedings and giving evidence”, states that
“the court may use its general case management powers as it considers appropriate to facilitate the party’s participation.”
According to the 2012 Rights of Women report, however, special measures were not advertised in family court, and were rarely ordered at that time. A more recent report by Women’s Aid in 2018 found that 61% of domestic abuse victims who participated in a survey were not provided with special measures in a family court. I mention these things to draw the Committee’s attention to the fact that, while there might appear to be measures at the moment in family courts, they are perhaps not effective, and many women who appear in the family court in domestic cases are not aware of them. Domestic abuse often surfaces in family law cases dealing with divorce or childcare arrangements. In 2018, 45% of cases in family court were matrimonial matters. Parental disputes concerning the upbringing of children accounted for 20% of cases. Intimate partner abuse has been found to be a factor in around half of child contact cases in England and Wales.
Often, women have been subjected to long-term violent and emotional abuse, and family court proceedings can be a negative experience, in much the same way as criminal ones, where they are offered protection. Such proceedings can even be used as another forum for abuse and control by perpetrators. The all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence and abuse found that victims of domestic abuse reported feeling re-victimised and re-traumatised through the family court process. In 2012, a report by Rights of Women, a women’s charity providing legal information and advice, outlined how victims of domestic abuse suffer intimidation and harassment from their former partners, and that they often feel unsafe during the court procedure in a family court. I cannot imagine what it must be like to be a survivor of domestic abuse, and find myself in a family court in a divorce, which is not easy and can be painful even when it is amicable.
Does the hon. Member agree that the Bill, as it stands, will transform the experience of victims of abuse in family courts by banning the cross-examination of perpetrators of domestic and sexual abuse?
That is the next clause, I believe. There is no measure we can take in the Bill that goes too far, or that could be regarded as being in any way sufficient, until we can do no more. No length is too great when it comes to protecting women. Banning cross-examination by perpetrators of domestic abuse is valuable, but it must be written in the legislation that special measures are available. It is not just women themselves who will be cross-examined; it might be their children. It is about coming in and out of the court. It is about having to face the person who has abused them—often for decades—in a corridor because they did not have a special entrance. We need to look at all these things. I cannot imagine what that would be like. No step is too far.
In 2018, Women’s Aid found that 24% of respondents had been cross-examined by their abusive ex-partner in the family court, and that was traumatising for them, so I do agree with the hon. Lady. Victims can feel that their experiences have been minimised in proceedings, and if protective measures are not granted by courts, they will be exacerbating that and letting these women down.
Christine Harrison from the University of Warwick has concluded that domestic abuse was and is persistently minimised and dismissed as irrelevant in private law proceedings. Lesley Laing from the University of Sydney in Australia has also found that accounts of engagement with the system often mirror domestic violence narratives. That is known as secondary victimisation, and it is not acceptable.
Resolution, the family justice charity, has said that although there have been changes to the family procedure rules, it is widely recognised that current special measures facilities in family court hearings—such as video and audio link, and screen facilities—are not satisfactory or on a par with the facilities available in the criminal courts. Resolution’s members, who are family lawyers, have raised their concerns.
We have talked about the Bill for three years as landmark legislation—a once in a generation opportunity to tackle domestic abuse. However, if we exclude the family courts from the Bill, we will miss a valuable opportunity to tackle domestic abuse in an area where it has perhaps been minimised and overlooked in the past, which is not acceptable. I therefore ask the Committee to consider the amendment.
I will speak to new clause 45, which has been grouped with the amendment. I support everything the hon. Lady has just said. I will not repeat much of what she has said about the number of victims who find they cannot actually access any of the facilities that are said to be available in the family courts. In one recent case—I will not cite the case here, but I have the details in front of me—the victim was denied special measures, even though the perpetrator had been arrested for battery, coercive control and sexual assault by penetration. The victim was also living in a refuge. However, she was denied special measures in the family court.
There is not only an absence of legislative guidance. It is clear, as some of the reports the hon. Lady referred to show, that facilities such as video and audio link are not as readily available as they are in the criminal courts. I absolutely welcome what the Bill attempts to do in formalising in legislation what largely exists in the criminal courts for most criminal court cases. In fact, I think that in every single domestic violence case that I have ever been to court about, special measures have formed a part of proceedings, or at the very least have been on offer. I myself have been offered special measures in cases that I have personally been involved with. Sometimes, victims do not want to use them; they want to sit and face the accused. I cannot remember a case in the criminal courts where special measures were not on offer; sometimes the video links leave a little to be desired, but they were none the less available.
It is great that the Government wish to formalise the special measures in our criminal courts in the Bill, and we support that. We simply wish to see those measures extended to court facilities where family law and civil law matters are discussed.
Stay Safe East, the disability charity that focuses on domestic abuse, has advised us that in the local family courts in its area, only one out of the 12 courtrooms has a video facility. I am sure I am teaching Ministers to suck eggs when I say that someone does not always get to decide which courtroom they go into when they get to court. It is therefore a sort of “luck of the draw” situation at the moment.
Automatic eligibility, which new clause 45 and the amendment would allow for, would place special measures on a statutory footing and ensure that family and civil courts make structural changes to safeguard victims, thereby removing the burden on victims to have to request special measures. We want a situation similar to the criminal courts, where such measures are offered in a very proactive way. In fact, long before someone even knows that they will ever be in court or has been given a court date, they are asked about special measures. The amendments are just about equalising that system across our justice estate, to reduce the variation in judicial approach and provide much-needed predictability for victims.
That is especially important because in lots of the cases we are talking about, victims go through a criminal case and a family case at the same time. It is unusual that they can be in one courtroom on a Tuesday and another on a Wednesday, and have completely different safeguards in place. Their case is exactly the same. The perpetration that they have suffered is exactly the same, yet they are safe in one courthouse and not safe—or do not feel safe—in another. There are, I am afraid to say, some terrible examples of women being attacked by their perpetrators in the toilets of family courts, which were written about in Women’s Aid’s “Nineteen Child Homicides” report for the Child First campaign. We just seek to equalise the situation.
The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Cheltenham, and I have talked many times about the sorts of things that we feel have been innovative for victims in the courts of law in our country. Sometimes, something small that we do in here changes the tone in a court case, and both he and I agree that the victim’s personal statement has certainly done that over the years. For many years, we have been hearing terrible things about the family courts, but I feel that a change of tone could be brought about in those courts. The special measures we seek through our amendments would certainly change the tone, by putting the onus on the family courts to consider the importance of victims of domestic violence and their vulnerabilities.
Perhaps I am being a bit premature, but I look forward to the progress on that, because the sectors have been crying out for the integration of different court systems for years and years. As we have said about a million times during these debates, the approach of the specialist domestic violence courts have been patchy across the country. In some areas, they have dwindled, but in others they have come to the fore because of the covid-19 crisis. I would very much welcome anything that would standardise the situation in courts for victims of domestic violence, especially in respect of their experience of the courts, whether they be civil, criminal or private.
It is exactly on that point that I want to talk about special measures. I hope that it is acceptable to the Chair for me to mention some matters on clause 59 as well, because these things will interact. I will not then rise to speak on clause 59. Much of this is to do with the lack of communication between jurisdictions and the experience of victims and survivors as a result. I welcome the opportunity to speak now because, in December 2017, I brought forward a private Member’s Bill on courts and the abuse of process. From the point of view of the victim’s experience, special measures and cross-examination—those two things—are inter-merged.
Back in 2017, my office carried out research into 122 victims of stalking and domestic abuse, which gave us a snapshot of those individuals’ experiences when they went to court. I understand that this was a self-selecting study, but 55% of those people had had court proceedings taken against them by their abusers. It should be noted that all those victims had restraining orders in place. None the less, that was their experience—court proceedings were brought against them. Two thirds of them then had to appear in court, and a third were personally cross-examined by their perpetrator. In only a quarter of those cases did the police view the court proceeding as a breach of the restraining orders on the perpetrators.
At that time, I was trying to limit the capacity of perpetrators, primarily of domestic abuse, stalking and harassment, to use—indeed, to misuse or abuse—the family and civil courts in a deliberate, calculated effort to continue to distress their victims and manipulate their behaviour to exercise deliberate control over their actions.
At the time, what needed to be sought was the means for the court to have the power to dismiss any meritless applications where it was apparent that the purpose of the application by the perpetrator was specifically to distress or harass the victim, in the guise of an appeal to justice in matters relating to civil or family court jurisdiction. Many of us will have come across instances of repeat applications, particularly in the civil court, but also, from the point of view of the perpetrator, to again be able to hold the victim under their control and, within that cross-examination, gain the satisfaction of that aspect of the relationship again.
I will mention what was proposed at the time, because it was felt to be suitable then. The proposal was that the applicant would be obliged to declare any unspent convictions or restrictions in relation to the respondent, or similar convictions against other victims; the respondent would be given the power to inform the court of any relevant convictions or restraining orders in respect of the applicant; and the court then would have a duty to investigate the claims. In such circumstances, if proceedings were permitted to continue, the respondent would be able to request special measures, such as the provision of screens or video links, and of course there would be a possibility of other special measures in relation to cross-examination.
I will just touch on a couple of examples. I do not want to go on forever with case studies, but they do give some colour as to why this point is relevant. One instance that became apparent to us from our research was of a man who had been a victim of stalking for over six years. His stalker had repeatedly brought baseless, vexatious claims against him through the civil court, and he had no option but to represent himself because of lack of funds. Despite the fact that the stalker was subject to a restraining order, he was allowed to continue to cross-examine the victim in the civil court, and neither the police nor the Crown Prosecution Service recognised those vexatious claims to be in breach of the restraining order. It was difficult to come to any conclusion other than that the court procedures themselves were at that time colluding with the applicant and his continued abuse of the respondent.
I will give a second example, just to give a sense of the costs. It involves another respondent to our research. This woman’s ex-partner had also had a restraining order, having been charged also with stalking her. He had taken the woman to court 15 times, in both civil and family courts. That had cost her about £25,000 because, like many people, she was not eligible for legal aid in those circumstances.
I will not rise to speak to clause 59, because I think this discussion does lead us on and there are a few specific points that I would like to make about clause 59, which is where the concerns are.
Thank you, Ms Buck. I will wait until the appropriate time.
I want to touch on my experience in the courts, particularly the specialist domestic violence courts. However harrowing it has been, it has been a genuine pleasure to be able to sit in those courts.
There are some common themes that I have seen in court. It is usually women and children affected. There is always a power and control dynamic; it is never just about the violence, although there usually has been violence. And there is always fear on the part of the victim, even with the special measures that I have seen—the screens and so on. I could still see the victims, and I saw them crying, shaking and trembling. This is so important. What such a measure does is take away some of the power that the perpetrator has to control the victim in the courtroom environment, because they are still trying to control, even right at that moment, with looks, sounds, movements—with everything they can muster at the time. Therefore, I profoundly support special measures across the piece, because I think that they are really valuable in limiting that control right through the justice system.
In the hon. Lady’s experience of dealing with these cases and being able to see the impact on victims, was she aware of the challenges that victims have before they get into the courtroom, because often in family courts it is very difficult to separate victims from perpetrators? Was she aware, in her job at the time, that that was also an issue that needed to be dealt with?
The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point. Long before I ever see a victim in court, there has been a huge process to get there and to provide the right support. Independent domestic violence advisers and different support mechanisms are in place; there are supporting people who come in and sit with the victim in court, but it is a hugely traumatic experience and support is needed throughout that process.
I would add a point about a common theme among perpetrators. When, in normal criminal cases, shoplifters or burglars or other violent offenders are convicted and sent to prison, there is a shrug of the shoulders—it is a part of their life; a general hazard of the criminality that they are involved in. When I have had—I will use the phrase—the pleasure to convict a perpetrator and send them to prison, it is noticeable that all the power has all of a sudden been stripped away. Their indignance and fury is palpable; you can sense it and see it. That is what makes it a different crime and a different experience, and that is why special measures are important. I speak to that experience.
Will my hon. Friend indulge me for a moment? I take the point that the hon. Member for Hove made about the geography and layout of court buildings. Some we cannot change because they are very old. Has my hon. Friend seen the measures that clever judges can introduce to control when defendants are permitted to turn up according to the conditions of bail? For example, the defendant is not permitted to arrive at court until 20 minutes before the court case starts, so that the victim has time to get into the building and into the witness room, or wherever she will be based, and there is no risk of crossover. Does my hon. Friend agree that little tweaks such as that can make a difference?
Absolutely; I completely agree. We cannot legislate for everything you can do in a court—every courtroom is set out differently. I have seen a lady with two teenage daughters, with the husband, and some really clever dynamics were needed to keep everyone separate, including in the toilets. In my experience, such measures have been very positive. There have been specialist domestic violence courts. Everyone is keenly aware of what is needed and is trying to think ahead for the kinds of measures that can make justice effective and make sure that justice is done. Such measures are all part of that.
I am delighted to see you in the Chair once again, Ms Buck. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford for her excellent contribution. It speaks to the strength of the Committee that its members have real-world experience and can apply it to the important matters that we are here to discuss.
Before turning to the amendment and new clause, it is worth taking stock of where we are in terms of the court process and the framework in which the amendment and new clause sit. Over the last 10 years or so—probably a bit longer—the environment for victims and witnesses has been completely transformed. It was not so long ago that a complainant in a case of serious violence or a serious sexual allegation had to turn up at court and eyeball the defendant. It required an extraordinary effort of will, and a lot of people just thought, “This isn’t worth the candle.”
Legislation was introduced that provided the opportunity for screens and giving evidence via live link. At the time, that was considered utterly revolutionary. People were clutching their pearls, saying, “That’s it; justice is dead in our country; there is no opportunity for people to get a fair trial” and so on. The culture has changed. Now, at plea and trial preparation hearings such orders are routinely made and, lo and behold, juries—indeed, benches of magistrates as well—seem to find it perfectly straightforward to make a judgment in the interests of justice on the facts in front of them.
Setting that context helps to bring us up to the situation at the moment. Let us imagine some facts for a moment. The allegation is one of sexual assault on the London Underground. At that early hearing, before the Crown court, long before the trial has even been scheduled, the judge will ask the prosecutor, “Are there any applications for a special measures direction?” The prosecutor will stand up and say, “Yes, there is a complainant in this case and it is an allegation of a sexual nature, so I will be inviting the court to make a special measures direction in the normal way.” That is precisely what will happen, because it will be automatic.
I pause to note one further point. If the complainant says, “Forget this. I don’t want a screen, and I don’t want to give evidence on a live link; I want to be there in the well of the court, because that is how I feel I will get justice”, that will be accommodated as well.
When we look at the provisions, it is important to understand how far we have come as a country. The hon. Lady was absolutely right when she talked about innovation. There has been a vast amount in recent years and I respectfully agree with her when she says that, even in that context, probably the single biggest innovation in allowing individuals to feel that they are getting justice is the victim personal statement. It is an opportunity to say at the end, “You, Judge, may have your own views about the impact on the victim. I will tell you how it has affected me and my family.” It is a spine-tingling moment in court when we get to the end of a case and it comes to sentencing. The prosecutor stands up to read it and it really brings home to us the whole purpose of the criminal justice system.
Clause 58 talks about special measures directions in cases involving domestic violence. As I have indicated, at the moment there are certain categories of offences where, at the lead hearing, the court imposes special measures directions, particularly in cases of serious sexual violence, or indeed ordinary violence. The clause extends the eligibility for assistance given to intimidated witnesses in criminal proceedings to complainants of any offence where it is alleged that the behaviour of the accused amounted to domestic abuse. In simple terms, the prosecutor will stand up and say, “My Lord, this is an allegation of violence in a domestic context. I will seek a special measures direction in the normal way. Thank you very much.” That will be imposed and it will be transformational. The officer in the case will pick up the phone to the complainant and say, “Don’t worry; there will be screens in this case.” She—for it is usually a she—can feel comforted from that.
Clause 58 also provides that a special measures direction provided for the witness’s evidence to be given in private can be given in cases where the proceedings relate to a domestic abuse-related offence. Of course, it is for the judge to decide whether he or she wants to exercise that discretion. There is a countervailing principle of openness of justice, but where the facts of the case militate in favour of proceedings being taken in private, that power is now there. I would not want to lose that point because it is a very important one.
We might think, “Why not extend all this?” Let me say a little bit about that. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh West has explained, amendment 54 seeks to enshrine in primary legislation the principle that victims of domestic abuse should be eligible for special measures in the family court. I mean no discourtesy, but I note that the way the amendment is drafted has some difficulties, although I understand precisely what she is trying to achieve. It states:
“In cases where it is alleged that domestic abuse is involved, Chapter 1 of Part 2 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 (special measures directions in case of vulnerable and intimidated witnesses) applies to proceedings in the family court as it applies to criminal proceedings, but with any necessary modifications.”
But it is not clear what those modifications would be. My first concern is that there is a vagueness in the amendment, and it relates only to family proceedings and not to civil proceedings.
New clause 45, tabled by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, goes a step further as it seeks to make provision for special measures in both the family and civil courts. Both hon. Members are right to raise the issue of special measures for domestic abuse victims in those two different jurisdictions. As I have indicated before, but to put it on the record, broadly speaking, special measures relating to putting in place a range of provisions to help vulnerable witnesses give their best evidence without fear or distress about testifying are good things. Although special measures are already generally available in jurisdictions, the Government recognise that how they are applied can be inconsistent, which can in turn have a negative impact on the experience of vulnerable witnesses in each jurisdiction. It is important to note that we are not moving from night into day, in so far as the measures have been available; it is a question of what this place can do to prompt that—in other words, to indicate or give a steer to the courts that we expect and hope them to be imposed more readily than perhaps was the case. This is an important issue that we need to get right.
In the family courts, there are currently no provisions for special measures in primary legislation. Instead, detailed provision is made in part 3A of the family procedure rules 2010, supported by practice direction 3AA. Part 3A puts the court under a duty in all cases to consider whether a party’s participation in proceedings, or the quality of evidence given by a party or witness, is likely to be diminished due to reasons of vulnerability. When considering vulnerability, the court must consider a wide range of matters, including concerns relating to abuse. If the court decides that special measures are necessary, it can make provision for a range of options to be put in place to assist the party or witness, such as protective screens or participation via video link.
The work of the Ministry of Justice’s expert panel on harm in the family courts, which I know a lot of hon. Members are aware of, has been magisterial. I pay tribute to those people who have given a huge amount of time and expertise to getting under the bonnet of something that is sensitive but is in clear need of careful examination. They have done magnificent work, and we are getting closer to seeing the fruits of those labours. The panel has examined the provision of special measures, as well as the supporting procedural rules, as part of its work and final report. That piece of work will be published in the coming weeks.
The Minister says that the report will be published in the coming weeks. Does he expect that we will see it prior to Report stage of the Bill, or potentially prior to Committee stage in the Lords, as he has leaned on for one particular review? I ask only because I am seeking to understand what will be given to me as I consider whether to push new clause 45 to a Division.
I invite the hon. Lady to listen to the end of my remarks. If I can put it in these terms, the words I will use at the end are carefully phrased. I invite her to listen to those and then decide. A huge amount of work has gone into this panel, and getting to a place where we are ready to publish is the stuff of enormous effort. We are moving as quickly as we can, and it will be published as quickly as possible.
On the civil courts, there are no specific provisions in the civil procedure rules that deal with vulnerable parties or witnesses. However, judges have an inherent power, where the court is alerted to vulnerability, to make a number of directions or take steps to facilitate the progression or defending of a claim or the giving of evidence by a vulnerable party.
The hon. Lady must have a copy of my speech, because I will come to that point in just a moment.
The directions that a civil court can make include, but are not limited to, giving evidence via video link, by deposition, by the use of other technology or through an intermediary or interpreter. On the hon. Lady’s point, following the April 2018 publication of the interim report and recommendations of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, the Ministry of Justice commissioned the Civil Justice Council—an advisory body responsible for overseeing and co-ordinating modernisation of the civil justice system—to consider the issues raised by these recommendations, and to compile a report that was not to be restricted only to victims and survivors of child sexual abuse.
The CJC published its report, “Vulnerable witnesses and parties within civil proceedings: current position and recommendations for change”, in February 2020. It made a number of recommendations, as the hon. Lady rightly points out. On special measures, the CJC report concluded that, in the civil jurisdiction, the issue is one of awareness and training, rather than lack of legal powers or framework. This goes back to my point on the role of this place in promoting awareness while recognising that discretion should be available to the court. That was the CJC’s conclusion. Its suggestion was that special measures were best left to the flexibility of court rules. The Government are considering how the recommendations in the independent report should be taken forward.
What is evident from the evidence received by the family panel and the Civil Justice Council is that the current position is unsatisfactory. The question is how best to improve the situation and ensure that vulnerable witnesses in the family and civil courts receive assistance to give their best evidence, in a way analogous to what the Bill already provides for in the criminal courts. We have the report from the Civil Justice Council to guide us but do not yet have the report of the family panel. However, I hope and expect that we will have it shortly, and it is right that we should consider the panel’s findings before legislating.
I am sympathetic to the intention behind these proposals. If the hon. Member for Edinburgh West would agree to withdraw her amendment I can give her and the shadow Minister an assurance that, between now and Report, we will carefully consider both proposals, and how best to proceed. If they are not satisfied with the conclusions the Government reach, they are of course perfectly entitled to bring amendments back on Report.