Sir James Munby says he welcomes Guardian’s spotlight on issue and will prioritise reform early in new year
The senior judge who oversees family courts in England and Wales has said he would support “as a matter of priority” a ban on perpetrators of domestic abuse cross-examining their victims.
Sir James Munby responded after a Guardian investigation last week revealed that women were being forced to face questioning in the family courts by men who had abused them. The practice has been banned in criminal courts but continues in the family division.
On Friday a spokesman for the president of the family division of the high court said Munby “would welcome a bar” on the practice but that it was down to primary legislation in parliament to do this.
“The president of the family division has been raising since 2014 the pressing need to reform the way in which vulnerable people give evidence in family proceedings,” the spokesman said.
“He has made clear his view that the family justice system lags woefully behind the criminal justice system. He has 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.”
The Guardian revealed that violent and abusive men were being allowed to confront and cross-examine their former partners in secretive court hearings that failed to protect women who were victims of abuse.
Mothers involved in family court hearings gave graphic descriptions of the “torture” of being questioned by abusive men.
In one case, a mother was cross-examined for two hours by her ex-husband despite him being the subject of a restraining order to keep him away from her.
Sarah, whose name has been changed, said: “I thought, why does the judge allow him to continue this abuse? I had escaped a really violent relationship. It was a very hard thing to do, and the court threw me back into harm’s way constantly. It was torture for me.”
The spokesman said Munby welcomed the fact that Women’s Aid had raised the issues and that he was considering a review of the rules supposed to protect victims of domestic violence within the family courts and stop direct cross examination.Munby was said on Friday to be “disappointed by how slow the response to these issues has been”.
The statement said Munby expected to make decisions on the review early in the new year.
Women who spoke to the Guardian breached strict rules governing the secrecy of the family courts but said they wanted a light shone on the process.
The revelations prompted one MP to demand a review of the way the court system operates and a change in the law. Peter Kyle, Labour MP for Hove and Portslade, said the situation amounted to the “abuse and brutalisation” of women by the legal system. “Mothers need the protection of the law and they need to know in advance that the system is there to look out and protect their interests,” he said.
The evidence obtained by the Guardian spanned ongoing and completed cases, interviews with participants, lawyers and court officials. It revealed how the family court:
- Allows men with criminal convictions for abusing their ex-partners to directly question them – sometimes repeatedly.
- Is able to ignore restraining orders imposed by the criminal courts to protect the women.
- Allows fathers, no matter how violent or abusive, to repeatedly pursue contact with children and their mothers.
- Can ignore expert evidence that women are at risk from abusive men.
- Fails to adequately protect vulnerable victims of domestic and sexual abuse.
One mother whose case was examined by the Guardian was told by a judge to sit next to her ex-partner to view a police video of her reporting his sexual assault. She said: “Since when is it OK to force a victim of abuse to sit next to her abuser around a laptop and watch the police video of the statements she made to the police about her sexual abuse? There was no screen in place, they provided no separate room for me.”
Cases examined by the Guardian reveal that judges in some cases appear to be ignoring advice from agencies including police, social services and Cafcass officials, to allow an abusive man contact with a child.Responding to the revelations, Cris McCurley, a family lawyer in north-east England, said: “I have worked on hundreds of cases and the direct cross examination of victims by a perpetrator happens a lot. It is absolutely traumatising. We have got to get something in place to stop this, even if it means appointing a special advocate or even a law student to put the questions instead of the perpetrator.”
In one case, a district judge allowed a father with a history of violence, and who has made repeated threats to kill his ex and his child, to continue his case for contact with the child. His former partner said: “It shocks me that a judge can see all these violent threats, and see from his criminal record that this is a man who does what he threatens to do, and … consider allowing him contact with his child. That leaves me speechless.”
Taken from The Guardian 30th December 2016