Domestic violence, an appeal, and children in care: The last week in family law

The Justice Secretary Elizabeth Truss has announced that the Government is giving courts the power to put an end to domestic violence victims being questioned by their alleged abusers in the family courts, calling time on what she has described as a “humiliating and appalling” practice. The provision follows an urgent review Ms Truss commissioned last month, and is contained in the Prisons and Courts Bill. Section 47 of the Bill provides that the court may appoint a qualified legal representative to carry out the cross-examination of the alleged victim, and the costs of the representative can be paid out of central funds. Justice Minister Sir Oliver Heald said: “Victims and the most vulnerable are at the centre of our changes, which will help deliver swifter and more certain justice for all.” Ms Truss had been under pressure to reform the treatment of domestic abuse victims in family courts after the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby said they were lagging “woefully” behind their criminal counterparts.

Responding to the Bill, Nigel Shepherd, Resolution’s national chair said: “We welcome the Ministry of Justice’s proposals to prevent alleged abusers from being able to cross-examine the person they’re alleged to have abused. It is a reform that is long overdue in family cases where the fear of such cross-examination can result in victims of abuse not seeking the protection they need and, if they do go ahead, adds to the trauma they have suffered.”

Tributes have been paid to the former President of the Family Division Sir Nicholas Wall, who died earlier this month, having reportedly taken his own life after being diagnosed with dementia. Sir James Munby said: “Sir Nicholas Wall was indisputably one of the outstanding family lawyers of our generation. He combined great intellectual rigour with humanity and compassion. His appointment as President of the Family Division in April 2010 crowned a most distinguished career in family law. He was well known for his kindness and generosity to colleagues at the Bar and on the Bench, and for his patience and courtesy in dealing with those who appeared before him, especially those without the benefit of legal representation.”

The removal of a 5-year time limit on evidence of abuse which prevents vulnerable victims of domestic violence from obtaining legal aid for court hearings has been welcomed by the Law Society. A Law Society spokesperson said: “Legal aid is a lifeline for those who have suffered abuse. It is often the only way someone can bring their case before the courts. Relaxing time and evidence restrictions so more victims of domestic violence can get legal aid for court hearings will be a welcome relief for many people. Today’s positive decision is the end result of work we and other organisations have been doing with the Ministry of Justice for many months.”

A former City trader who made millions in bonuses working in the energy market has appealed to the Court of Appeal to have her divorce settlement to her ex-husband cut by £1.5 million, to £1.2 million. Julie Sharp ended her four-year marriage after she found out that her husband Robin was seeing someone else. In November 2015, High Court judge Sir Peter Singer awarded Mr Sharp £2,737,000 in a “clean break” divorce settlement, after hearing that the couple had assets of £6.9 million, almost all of which came from Mrs Sharp. Mrs Sharp has asked for the award to be cut to £1,197,000, arguing that the judge’s 50-50 division of the assets was “intrinsically unfair”. However, Mr Sharp has insisted that he made a major contribution to the marriage in managing their properties, and he took redundancy in 2012 to oversee the renovation of their six-bedroom manor house near Cheltenham. The Court of Appeal has reserved its judgment.

And finally, a study has revealed that children living in the poorest neighbourhoods of the UK are almost 10 times more likely to be taken into care or placed on a child protection plan than those from affluent areas. The Child Welfare Inequalities Project found one in 60 children is in care in England’s most deprived areas, compared with one in 660 in the least deprived. Lead investigator Paul Bywaters, professor of social work at Coventry University, said: “We’ve known for years that child abuse and neglect is linked to poverty, but there’s been a fundamental gap in our understanding of how a child’s family circumstances and neighbourhood deprivation or locality impacts their chances of the state intervening to improve their life chances. Our ultimate aim is to make reducing inequalities in child welfare a key policy objective, in the same way that tackling inequalities in health and education have been prioritised in recent years.”