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New measures introduced to protect domestic violence victims in court

28th February 2017

Courtroom

Domestic violence victims will no longer face being interrogated by their former partners in court under new proposed legislation.

The move follows campaigns from women’s rights and victims support groups, including Women’s Aid, which says the change is long overdue. According to an article in The Guardian, family court judges will be given new powers to stop abusers from being able to question their victims in court under the Prisons and Courts Bill.

Currently, violent abusers are not allowed to cross-examine their former partners in criminal cases. But they are still allowed to in family courts. As a result, thousands of women can be potentially subjected to cross-examination by a violent partner, which has received justified censure from Justice Secretary Liz Truss. She said: “This is a humiliating and appalling practice which must be banned as quickly as possible. It cannot be right that anyone who has found the courage to escape their abusive or violent partner should be subjected to the stress and torment of being confronted and interrogated by them in any court.”

Women’s Aid, a UK domestic violence charity, launched a campaign in January 2016 called Child First. The campaign aimed to “stop avoidable child deaths as a result of unsafe child contact with dangerous perpetrators of domestic violence.” Following the new legislation announcement, Women’s Aid released a statement: “We are delighted that the government is legislating to stop survivors of domestic abuse being cross-examined by their abuse partner in the family courts. This was a key demand of the courageous survivors who have spoken out for the Women’s Aid Child First campaign. It is an enormous step forward.”

Along with women’s rights campaigners, Sir James Munby, president of the family division of the high court, has also called for a change in the law. In December, his spokesman said: “He has made clear his view that the family justice system lags woefully behind the criminal justice system. He expressed particular concern about the fact that alleged perpetrators are able to cross-examine their alleged victims, something that, as family judges have been pointing out for many years, would not be permitted in a criminal court. Reform is required as a matter of priority.”

Those in legal roles should be aware of additional changes to domestic violence legislation. Under plans being introduced in 2017, vulnerable victims and witnesses will no longer have to appear in court. Their cross-examination will instead be recorded and played during the trial. The Ministry of Justice also confirmed it is considering another piece of legislation recently introduced by Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts, which would prevent rape victims from being cross-examined about their sexual history in court.

A study of 30 rape trials by the Northumbria court observers panel between January 2015 and June 2016 found that victims were questioned about their prior sexual conduct in 11 cases. Campaign groups such as Voice4Victims say this means victims are less likely to come forward because they fear humiliation in court.

Harry Fletcher, director of Voice4Victims, said: “The impact of cross-examining a person about their sexual history and the direct questioning of victims by domestic abuse perpetrators is intended to undermine the credibility of the victim and humiliate them. This is neither just nor fair and does not happen in other trials. It’s welcome that the government is looking to change the law in these areas.”