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Let me say a little about clause 59. In fact, the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd was starting to talk about it, so I will set out some context. The clause contains provisions to prevent unrepresented perpetrators of abuse from cross-examining their victims in person in family proceedings. It also makes provision to give family courts the power to appoint a qualified legal representative to undertake the cross-examination instead, where necessary.
The Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill, which undertook pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill, recommended that the automatic prohibition of cross-examination be extended so that it would apply when the victim could provide evidence of abuse, as in the legal aid regime. We have accepted the recommendation in full, and the clause now gives full effect to it.
Some of the most vulnerable members of society come before the family courts, and we are determined to offer them every protection and to ensure that every vulnerable victim or witness coming to the family courts has confidence that the court will not be used to perpetrate further abuse against them. Currently, family judges have a range of powers to make sure that difficult courtroom situations are handled sensitively for vulnerable witnesses. In proceedings where both parties are litigants in person and concerns of domestic abuse have been raised, that may include carrying out cross-examination by way of the judge or the justices’ legal advisers putting questions to the parties themselves. Alternatively, the judge can decide that an alternative form of evidence, such as pre-recorded cross-examination from criminal proceedings, is sufficient.
However, there are cases in which those alternative forms of evidence or cross-examination will not be sufficient to test the evidence in the case thoroughly. We must recognise that for the judge to step into the arena to ask those questions is often—how can I put it politely?—suboptimal. In those instances, the court currently has no power to appoint an advocate to carry out the cross-examination in place of the parties themselves. That can lead to situations in which the court is powerless to prevent a victim from being cross-examined in person by their abuser.
I am sure we would all feel uncomfortable about a situation in which evidence was not challenged. The whole point of an adversarial process is to tease out inconsistencies and omissions in the evidence. If that is not happening, the proceedings are not fair, so it is important that there should be scope within the trial process for frailties in the evidence to be ruthlessly exposed.
We recognise that the issue has been the subject of close attention in the House and among experts in the field. Victims have told us that being subject to cross-examination in person in this way can be retraumatising, and judges have told us that the situation is an impossible one for them to manage. I entirely sympathise. We are determined that the court should never be used as a forum to perpetuate further abuse, and that it should have sufficient powers in all cases to prevent abuse from being perpetrated through court processes.
The purpose of the clause is therefore to introduce a prohibition on victims being cross-examined in person in specified circumstances. In addition, the clause gives the court the power to appoint an advocate, paid for from central funds, for the purpose of cross-examination where there are no satisfactory means to cross-examine the witness or to obtain the evidence, where the party does not appoint a legal representative or themselves to do so, and where it is necessary in the interests of justice to do so.
The clause has the effect of introducing an automatic ban on cross-examination in person in every case where one party has been convicted of, given a caution for or charged with certain offences against the witness. Those offences will be specified in regulations but are intended to include offences related to domestic abuse, child abuse and sexual abuse. The provisions will also introduce an automatic ban on cross-examination in person where one party has an on-notice protective injunction in force against the witness. It really is a far-reaching clause, and it significantly increases the protection for individuals who might otherwise be retraumatised by the process.
I welcome what the Minister is saying, but on the specific instances he is outlining of who exactly would be able to assess this, does he foresee an element of the judge’s discretion also allowing them to go to central funds where they believe enough that cross-examination would cause distress, regardless of whether there may previously have been a conviction or an order in place? As we all know, there is a disparity between conviction and order rates on the one hand, and domestic violence rates on the other.
Courts have a common law discretion to manage their own proceedings, but it will be important for us to assist the them as much as possible by setting out the categories that should trigger the exemption. Although courts can act of their own motion, it is none the less important to prescribe to an extent that the provision applies in circumstances where somebody has been convicted, charged or cautioned. I will develop that point in the following passage.
In the light of the recommendation from the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill, the clause now makes provision that the automatic ban will also apply in other cases where a witness has adduced specified evidence of domestic abuse. The evidence will be specified in regulations and, as recommended by the Joint Committee, we intend for this evidence to broadly replicate that which is used to access civil legal aid. That is probably the point that the hon. Lady was driving at.
The prohibitions also apply reciprocally, to prevent a victim from having to cross-examine their abuser in person. Where the automatic ban does not apply, the clause also gives the court a discretion to prohibit cross-examination in person where it would be likely to diminish the quality of the witness’s evidence or cause significant distress to the witness or the party. That is the point about a court’s discretion: the judge has the individuals in front of them, can hear from them and can make a decision based on that.
In any case where cross-examination in person is prohibited, either under the automatic prohibition or at the discretion of the court, the judge must consider whether there is a satisfactory alternative means by which the witness can be cross-examined or the evidence can be obtained. That would include means that already fall under the judge’s general case management powers, such as putting the questions to the witness themselves or via a legal adviser, or by accepting pre-recorded cross-examination. I suppose one might imagine cases where the things that need to be cross-examined on are so narrow in scope that it would not be worth the aggravation of instructing independent counsel if the judge can do it and do justice in that way. It is important that the court can act of its own motion and flexibly, and the clause retains that flexibility.
If there are no satisfactory alternative means, the court must invite the prohibited party to appoint a legal representative to carry out cross-examination on their behalf. If they choose not to, or are unable to, the clause gives the court the power to appoint a legal representative—an advocate—for the sole purpose of conducting the cross-examination in the interests of the prohibited party. The court must appoint an advocate where it considers this to be necessary in the interests of justice.
There could be circumstances where it is not possible to protect the prohibited party’s rights to access to justice and/or a family life without the appointment of such an advocate. This might be in circumstances, for example, where the evidence that needs to be tested by cross-examination is complicated, because it is complex medical or other expert evidence, or because it is complex or confused factual evidence, say from a vulnerable witness. The clause also confers power on the Secretary of State to issue statutory guidance in connection with the role of that advocate.
The clause also confers power on the Secretary of State to make regulations about the fees and costs of a court-appointed advocate to be met from central funds. We understand the particular skill and care that is needed to carry out cross-examination of a vulnerable witness effectively. We will be designing a full fee scheme to support these provisions, in consultation with the sector and interested parties, prior to the implementation of the Bill.
This clause seeks to ensure that, in future, no victim of domestic abuse has to endure the trauma of being questioned in person by their abuser as part of ongoing family proceedings. It makes a big difference, and I commend it to the Committee.
It is rare but pleasing when one agrees so fully with the person one shadows, and I am grateful to him. I do not want to shock the Minister—I do not want him to be clutching his pearls as I say such words—but it is certainly the situation we find ourselves in on this clause. We are not opposing or seeking to amend the clause; we agree fully with it and what it seeks to achieve.
However, I want to spend a bit of time explaining how we got to where we are, because it is important. It is important that we make sure the record reflects the situation that this clause seeks to rectify and the impact that the cross-examination by perpetrators of victims has had on people. In so doing, I speak on behalf of a great number of advocates, both in Parliament and outside, over a great period of time. I can speak for myself on this issue, but I am very aware of the fact that I am also speaking on behalf of a lot of other people.
I had personal experience of this issue very soon after getting elected in 2015. Soon after the election, I was sitting on the floor of my campaign office among the detritus of a very vigorous campaign, sorting through things and trying to figure things out, when a very fragile, very vulnerable and very damaged woman suddenly appeared in the doorway. She came in to see me, and said, “Are you the new MP?” I said yes, and she said, “I saw your leaflets. You look like a friendly person. I am now going to flee my relationship, and I will only speak to you about it.” We sat in the corner of the office, and this woman was bruised and bleeding. She had literally escaped from the relationship, and I, as an MP of a few days, was thinking on the inside, “Oh my God, what do I do in this situation? How do I help this extraordinarily vulnerable person?” I just did the best I possibly could, and that involved brokering a relationship between her and the police, about which she was terrified. She was scared of the authorities because the authorities had let her down so many times, repeatedly. I supported that woman, and she went into a protective programme. She now has a new identity and a new life, and although she will never ever be able to escape the horrors of what she went through, she certainly has an opportunity to discover new, more fruitful aspects of life, which she was prevented from doing before.
One of the aspects I experienced very soon after the process of supporting her began was the experience of the family court. I could not believe what I heard when she came to see me after some hearings in the family court, where she was made to share the space of the person she had fled. Having seen her on the day she fled her relationship, it was horrendous to hear that she was forced into the same waiting room as this person, had to be in the same space when their relationship was discussed and, crucially, was cross-examined by him.
At the same time, another constituent came to see me in my surgery. She had just been cross-examined by her abusive partner for the third time. She had previously been hospitalised; the perpetrator had broken more than a dozen or her bones and repeatedly raped her. On the third appearance in the family court, she was shaking so violently that she needed assistance to get to the taxi afterwards. On the journey home, the taxi driver had to stop and help her out of the taxi so that she could vomit on the pavement.
That was happening to people who I was sitting with and who I represented in Parliament. I could not understand that the very institutions that existed to protect people like them were facilitating the abuse—in front of judges, in a room with police officers, abuse was happening, and nobody was offering support. To my shame, I could not quite believe that this was possible in 21st-century Britain. When I came back to Parliament, I sought out my right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer and asked him about it. I said, “I am hearing this thing, but I can’t believe it is possible.” He, as the former Director of Public Prosecutions, said, “It is happening, and there is a big campaign out there to try and change it.”
I could not believe that it was still happening, so I went to speak to Ministers. Repeatedly, Minister after Minister told me that a cultural change was needed in the criminal justice system, not a legislative change. I could not accept that. Having gone to speak to judges to understand why change was not happening, and having repeatedly spoken to Ministers, I found it incredibly hard to believe that the Government were not seeing or understanding the abuse. Of course, they were seeing it, but they were refusing to change. There are many lessons here, and I hope Back Benchers realise that persistence is one of them.
During the debate itself, I was able to put on record the most shocking example of this abuse that I have ever come across. In the eight or nine months leading up to the debate, I met dozens of women who had gone through such abuse. The most shocking case was that of Jane Clough—some people in this room will be aware of her case. I am not the sort of person who normally quotes himself, but in going through all the different debates that have taken place in Parliament in the last five years on this issue, I read some of the examples I put on record, and I want to quote directly from one debate. My reason for doing so is that I want Members to realise, and I want the record to reflect, that this example has been on the House of Commons record for almost four years.
I quote from Hansard Vol. 614, c. 1099—I hope, in these difficult times for our friends at Hansard, that saves them a small amount of work—which reads:
“If there is one example that sums up the sheer horror of abuse and its continuation in the family court, it is that of Jane Clough. Jane was in an abusive and violent relationship until she finally took action and went to the police. Her ex-partner, Jonathan Vass, appeared in court charged with nine counts of rape, one of sexual assault and three counts of common assault. Some of this had taken place while Jane was heavily pregnant with his child. Inexplicably, Judge Simon Newell decided that Vass was not a threat and freed him on bail.
Jane lived in so much fear that she moved in with her parents for comfort and protection. Vass eventually found out where Jane was working and, in July 2010, he attacked her as she headed home from work. He stabbed her 19 times and then slashed her throat—wounds from which she died. The next day, he was arrested approaching Jane’s parents’ home. He was on his way to murder either his baby child or Jane’s parents, or both…Once in prison, Vass began demanding parental rights over his child. This was the child whose mother he had beaten and murdered, and the child he would, in all likelihood, have murdered if only he had had the opportunity. None of us can imagine the pain this caused Jane’s family, but it gets worse still.
Jane’s sister began adoption proceedings in order to break the link with Vass. From that moment onwards, the family experienced a legal system that was stacked in his favour, rather than the baby he had tried to kill. Without access to financial support or legal aid, the family had to find separate representation for the baby and the rest of the family. Had a legal firm not donated pro bono representation, they would have had to sell their house to cover the costs.
A five-day hearing was scheduled in the family court, and the family were informed that Vass had exercised his right to self-representation. The man who had brutally murdered their sister and daughter would be cross-examining them. Jane’s sister told me that she simply cannot find the words to do justice to the brutalising effect this had on her as the court date approached. On the day of the hearing, they were informed that he would be appearing by video link, but they were stunned to discover that this was because of concerns for his safety and had nothing at all to do with the wellbeing of the family. As Jane’s sister told me, ‘It was so shocking. It was all about him—what was best for him, how best to protect his rights. Nothing was balanced against our rights.’
During the cross-examination, Vass asked personal questions of the family members. He asked Jane’s sister, in reference to the baby, ‘What will you tell her about me?’. He asked her husband: “What makes you think you can be a dad to my daughter?’.”—[Official Report,
In responding to that Backbench debate, the Minister, Phillip Lee, showed considerable empathy with the suffering and understanding of the problem, but he refused to commit to any change at all—back then, Phillip Lee was a dedicated Tory. We continued campaigning; we would not let this go. I even got to the point of arranging for a journalist from The Guardian to meet one of the survivors I had sat with, which resulted in a plethora of stories appearing in the run up to Christmas 2016. Then The Times picked it up and arranged meetings. When journalists called me about this case, they simply did not believe what we were telling them.
Is one reason why Lobby journalists and other journalists did not believe it potentially because of the deep secrecy about what occurs in family courts? In the case of the Cloughs, while they were going through the court, they would have been forbidden from speaking about it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes an important point. She is right about the secrecy of family courts. In a subsequent urgent question that I was granted on cross-examination, I asked for a full review of practices in family courts with that very much in mind. Since then, some journalists have been allowed into family courts, but it is heavily regulated to the point where it still stymies the process, work and operation of the family court. It might interest Members to learn that in that quote from Hansard, I used parliamentary privilege. I broke the regulations of the family court to even describe the process that occurred in that exchange in the family court with the Clough family. That is how heavily restricted the processes of family courts are at times, and that is what has led to the lack of reform in comparison with other parts of the criminal justice system. Everything that we are discussing in this clause is already the case in criminal courts.
If the press and the media had been able to scrutinise, and if we had known what was happening in some of those cases, it would have been dealt with some time ago. That is another important point, because The Times splashed the story twice on its front page over Christmas 2016. On
What frustrated me at that point was the equal opposite to what elated me. I was absolutely punching the air that there was going to be movement. What frustrated me, as a parliamentarian, was that we had given the Government half a dozen opportunities in the previous six months on the record in the Commons using the right procedures to get the change that we needed, but it took getting the media involved to deliver it.
We all know that, no matter who the Speaker is, every Speaker will go through the roof when they see an off-the-record briefing making announcements to the media. I immediately asked Speaker Bercow for an urgent question, which I was granted on
“Is it necessary to change the law? The answer is yes it is. Primary legislation would be necessary to ban cross-examination…work is being done at a great pace to ensure that all these matters are dealt with in a comprehensive and effective way—the urgency is there…My feeling is that what is required is pretty straightforward: a ban, and then the necessary ancillary measures to allow cross-examination without the perpetrator doing it.”—[Official Report,
Hon. Members can imagine that that was a big moment.
As an aside, I refer to the exchange that just took place between the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley. When she intervened on him and asked, “When will it be done?”, he replied saying, “As soon as possible.” There was a guarantee to sort out cross-examination almost four years ago—the right hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire said on the record, “the urgency is there”—so when we hear such things from Ministers, we sometimes have that experience, which is why we often seek to probe and get things on the record about timings.
We had a huge opportunity for change. We had the commitment of the Government. At one point the then Minister, the right hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire, giddily galloped across the Chamber to put the amendment that he sought to move to the Prison and Courts Bill in my hand and said, “There it is. We’re going to do it.” Then, of course, we fell into the 2017 general election. Repeated attempts to get it fixed in the subsequent period also fell to the challenges of the time. Then, of course, we had the Bill that fell before the 2019 general election.
After the UQ of January 2017, I received over 1,000 messages from around the world—mostly women, but some men—who had experienced this in their own lives and felt an incredible need to share their experiences. I had underestimated the degree to which this is a community of people who have suffered, survived and are connected in various ways to share their stories. I had to take on a team of volunteers just to cope with their specific correspondence. Every single person who contacted me had such stories of pain and suffering, as well as persistence and fortitude to a degree that is almost unimaginable for someone who has not experienced it, that I believed every single one of them deserved a personal response.
What united every single message was gratitude that change was coming and a sense of relief that other people would not go through what they went through. That is why the delay of four years has been so difficult for very many people to stomach. Although the numbers have declined because courts have become more aware of the challenge, even one victim and survivor of domestic abuse experiencing a fraction of what we have just heard about would be one too many. So when my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley, members of our Front-Bench team and I read in clause 59:
“In family proceedings, no party to the proceedings who has been convicted of or given a caution for, or is charged with, a specified offence may cross-examine in person a witness who is the victim, or alleged victim, of that offence.”—
believe, me, I want to jump up and down screaming, “Hallelujah!” This is a very important moment. I wish it had come sooner, but it takes away none of the excitement, elation and gratitude that it is actually coming now. This is a good day and a good moment for very many people.
Some representative organisations and campaigning groups have been in touch with a request to amend the clause. They have concerns that still, within the letter of the law, it would be possible for a perpetrator, or alleged perpetrator, to nominate somebody close to them—a friend or a family member—to do the cross-examination on their behalf who might well act in their interests in terms of carrying on the abuse. I do not believe, from reading the Bill, that that is in the spirit of the proposed law or is something I believe a court would countenance. However, I seek reassurance from the Minister that they are aware of that, and that should it ever happen in court they will not wait six months, a year or four years before fixing it, but do everything in their power, including bringing something to the Floor of the House, to deal with it if that is what it takes.
I too very much welcome the drive behind the clause. The hon. Member for Hove expressed so well the sense that victims have been grist to the mill in the past and this measure will re-set the balance to a degree. I very much agree with the spirit of the amendment to the clause, but there are a couple of points I would like to raise to bring to the attention of the Minister potential loopholes that may need attention in future.
The restriction on cross-examination does not apply if the caution or the conviction is spent. Given that restraining orders can last a year or 18 months, that raises the question of whether the individual could wait a certain period of time, and then bring forward proceedings and avoid what this measure endeavours to achieve. That concept of short-term protections therefore somewhat misunderstands the nature of domestic abuse and fixated behaviours. This relatively short period of time—a year to 18 months—within which the perpetrator might not have received interventions to manage their behaviour means that the threat may still exist. That could also be seen to overlook the nature of the trauma having a long-lasting effect on victims.
One proposal for Ministers to think about is where a conviction or caution has been spent and a perpetrator wishes to cross-examine. Perhaps a risk assessment should be carried out by a domestic abuse specialist and, therefore, the courts could have a specialist domestic abuse court co-ordinator able proactively to identify the potential of a risk and ensuring that the victims are protected as necessary.
The second potential loophole is the apparent lack of penalty or consequences were cross-examinations allowed to take place when the court should have been able to perceive that they ought not to be allowed to go ahead—for example, when a court could or should have known whether there was a conviction, a caution or a charge in place but did not. Again referring back to the work I have done previously, it is often the experience of victims that cross-examination proceeds when, according to regulations or procedures as they stand, it should not have done, but it did. That is the experience of many victims.
Earlier, I raised the fact of relatively poor communication and collaboration between the jurisdictions, which already has a negative impact on family court proceedings. Judgments made in the criminal courts, such as restraining orders, can be overlooked—I will not say are routinely overlooked, but it does happen—or not taken into consideration in the family court.
My aim with those two points is to put them on the record and to wonder whether Ministers will consider them. Are they significant loopholes and, if so, how will they address them?
Before turning to the specific point, I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Hove said, and it was clear that he has taken a close interest in the issue. I thank him for the energy that he has clearly applied to it. As I was listening to him, I heard about Bills that had fallen, elections that had come and UQs that had happened, and I was reminded of Otto von Bismarck, the German Chancellor, who said: “Laws are like sausages; it is best not to watch them being made.”
That is absolutely right and I felt it about this. Inevitably—not inevitably, but not uncommonly—it can take time to get there, but we are absolutely delighted with where we have arrived at with this important legislation. It is important to note, too, that it takes place in the context of other important legislation that it was possible to get over the line earlier, such as on coercive control or modern slavery. The Bill sits within that wider context in which we take some pride.
I will first address the issue of spent convictions, friends and so on, and that will allow me to go back to a point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, when she in effect said, “What happens in circumstances where it is not necessarily a conviction or a caution, but something else?” If hon. Members turn to page 40 of the Bill, that is the relevant part of clause 59, which deals with how the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 will be amended. The clause having dealt specifically with issues of conviction and caution, proposed new section 31U—“Direction for prohibition of cross-examination in person: other cases”— states:
“In family proceedings, the court may give a direction prohibiting a party to the proceedings from cross-examining…a witness in person if…none of sections 31R to 31T operates to prevent the party from cross-examining the witness”— that relates to people protected by injunctions, convictions or other matters—and
“it appears to the court that—
(i) the quality condition or the significant distress condition is met, and
(ii) it would not be contrary to the interests of justice to give the direction.”
In other words, it would be open to the party to indicate to the court: “Yes, I don’t automatically qualify, but I’m going to provide a statement that indicates that it would adversely affect the quality of the evidence I can give were I to be cross-examined by the other party.” I hope that that will give the courts confidence that flexibility is deliberately built into the system.
To return to my concern about the lack of communication between jurisdictions, on spent convictions we are going quite a long way down the road as to what communication is necessary. Is the Minister confident that there is sufficient communication, or that there will be in the wake of the legislation, to ensure that such situations are safeguarded against?
Yes, I am confident, but it goes back to the earlier point that we were making about culture. If, by dint of the legislation, the family judges, when deciding whether to make one of the orders, are alive to the fact that they will need to consider whether someone has a conviction or a caution, that will, in and of itself, encourage and require the co-operation of the police. In other words, the court will have to find out what is on the police national computer in respect of the other party.
I am confident that courts will see their way to ensuring that those lines of communication are in place. Quite apart from anything else, if a judge finds himself, or herself, in a situation where he cannot make the order because he has not been provided with the information he needs, we can be very sure that he is likely to say something about that. That will, I am sure, elicit change in the fullness of time, so the short answer to the hon. Lady’s question is yes.