19:16, May 29 50 0 theguardian.com

2018-05-29 19:16:06
Domestic abusers still able to cross-examine victims in court

Victims of domestic violence continue to be cross-examined by their abusers in family courts more than a year after the government promised to stop such ordeals, a report has found.

Children’s lives were being put at risk because victims were not being given safe or fair hearings, according to the study by Women’s Aid and Queen Mary University of London.

Survivors reported they were repeatedly not believed, blamed for experiencing abuse, and seen as unstable by judges, barristers and Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) officers. One woman said her abusive ex-partner was able to cross-examine her about her sexual history during child contact proceedings.

Almost a quarter of survivors (24%) surveyed said they had been cross-examined by their abusive ex-partner. Three in five (61%) said there was no special protection, such as separate waiting rooms, different entry/exit times, screens or video links, despite the domestic abuse allegations.

More than two thirds (69%) reported their abusive ex-partner had also been emotionally abusive towards a child, while 38% said children had been physically abused. Nonetheless, unsupervised contact with an abusive parent was the most frequent outcome in cases sampled by the report.

The extent to which women were being harassed in secretive court hearings was revealed in a Guardian report in 2016 featuring research by Women’s Aid. It triggered a debate that eventually led to the then justice secretary, Liz Truss, pledging in February 2017 to ban the “humiliating and appalling” practice.

Women’s Aid is calling for the government to commission an independent inquiry into the family courts to tackle the failings.

Shazia Choudhry, a professor of law at Queen Mary, said: “There is evidence of the family courts failing in their responsibility to prevent and investigate acts of violence towards these survivors, and facilitating or failing to challenge a climate of gender discrimination within the courtroom. The findings of this research are deeply concerning and require urgent attention from both the judiciary and the legal profession.”

Katie Ghose, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, said the government urgently needed to meet its commitment to ban the practice.

“For far too long, survivors have endured continued abuse at the hands of their abuser in the family courts,” she said. “Enough is enough. We want to see the family courts protect survivors during the court process and ensure that survivors are able to access their right to a fair and just legal process.

“We know that perpetrators of domestic abuse are using the family courts to continue to control and abuse victims, and that the family courts’ failure to consistently safeguard survivors and apply fairness during the court process is enabling that abuse.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We will legislate to ban the unacceptable practice of abusers cross-examining their victims in the family court as soon as possible. The law is clear that the child’s welfare is paramount, and it is for judges to determine what is best for the child after careful consideration of the facts in each case.”

Victims’ views



‘The judge allowed him to be abusive’

Catherine (not her real name) said she was shocked at being questioned by her ex-partner, against whom she had a restraining order. “I felt so ill having to sit there and go through it,” she recalled.

“He was following his own agenda and asking me about previous boyfriends and my sex life – things that were completely irrelevant to what we were discussing. Half of what he was asking me he should never have been able to inquire about but the judge was telling me to answer.

“The district judge allowed him to be very abusive. He called my barrister a ‘slag’. I think the judge had become desensitised and was used to the abuse.

“The final result was indirect contact because my child didn’t want to go to him. I’m still living in fear that he will find me one day. I have had to move homes at great expense.

“I heard recently that he had attacked his current girlfriend. This cross-examination is still going on in the family courts. It would never happen in the criminal courts. It beggars belief. It’s absolutely horrendous.”

‘He believed he could still control me’

Claire Throssell, 46, lost both her sons, Jack and Paul, when her ex-husband set fire to their home and killed himself during an unsupervised visit after their marriage ended.

Beforehand she had to go to court to resolve contact issues. “When I was in court he was allowed to hurl insults,” she said. “He called me all the names under the sun and the judge allowed this to happen.

“I had a solicitor representing me. My ex-husband didn’t. He was aggressive, believing he could still control me and that it was his right. It’s a really traumatic experience: you are fighting to get your children’s voices heard.

“As it stands now, there are women in refuges and there’s nothing to stop a perpetrator following them from court back to the refuge.

“I think it’s a question of cost. It’s even harder for families to get access to legal aid now. They should have separate waiting rooms so that the victim and perpetrator don’t have to sit outside the courtroom in the same small space.

“I’m still getting people contacting me saying they are having horrific experiences in court. Things have to change.

“I lost my sons three and a half years ago. Jack’s voice was never heard in court. He would have said he didn’t want contact with his father. It all starts in the family court and they are not getting it right.”

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