Weekly Family Law Update September 30, 2022

New developments in court proceedings break cycle of abuse

Domestic abuse is an issue that sadly arises in many family proceedings dealt with by the court –  whether by way of a person asking for the court’s protection from further abuse, or perhaps raising allegations of abuse against the other parent in court proceedings about arrangements for their children.

It is however a fact that a person who has suffered such abuse finds the thought of having to give evidence in court about such abuse to be frightening and upsetting.   Whilst the court does all that it can to provide support, until recently the court procedure has meant that the abused could be questioned about their allegations in court by their abuser and this proved to be daunting for many, possibly even discouraging victims from raising allegations at all.

But in a very welcome recent development, alleged abusers are now prevented from questioning their victims in court.

Cross-examination without a lawyer

In proceedings, the court will usually need to hear evidence from both parties before it can arrive at a decision in relation to the allegations made.

When one party gives evidence in court, the other party is entitled to question (cross-examine) them about this.  Such cross-examination would normally be done by a lawyer.

However, many alleged abusers have been able to cross-examine their alleged victims themselves in the past because, for whatever reason, they do not have a lawyer of their own.   Sadly, the alleged abuser has been able to use this process as a means of further abusing their victim, continuing the cycle of abuse.

Protection for victims

Now parliament has acted to break this cycle of abuse.

As one of many new procedures for protecting victims of domestic abuse, alleged abusers are now prevented from cross-examining their victims themselves.

The new rules provide that the court may prevent an alleged abuser from cross-examining their victim in four circumstances:

1. Where the abuser has been given a police caution in connection with, been charged with, or been convicted of, a criminal offence against the victim; or

2. Where a protective injunction forbidding the abuser from subjecting the victim from abuse is in force; or

3. Where there is evidence that the victim has been subjected to domestic abuse by the alleged abuser; or

4. Where none of the above apply, but it appears to the court that the quality of the evidence given by the victim will be diminished, or the cross-examination of the victim by the alleged abuser would be likely to cause significant distress to the victim.

So who cross-examines the victim?

If the alleged abuser does not have a lawyer of their own, the court can now appoint a separate qualified lawyer to carry out the cross-examination of the victim on the alleged abuser’s behalf. The lawyer’s fees would be paid for out of public funds.

Commenting on the new rules, Justice Minister Tom Pursglove MP said:

“Going to court about family issues can be a traumatic experience, so victims of domestic abuse shouldn’t face the extra torment of being cross-examined by their abuser.

“This is already banned in criminal trials and [now] it will be banned in family and civil courts too – to protect victims, ease the stress and make sure they get a fair hearing.”

As indicated, this development is just one of a number of new protections for victims of domestic abuse in court. Other protections include separate court entrances for each party, and protective screens to separate victims from abusers in the courtroom.