Domestic abuse: Charities call for end of “state-sanctioned abuse” in court proceedings

A plethora of charities are amongst those calling for urgent reform to better protect women going through the family courts amidst the ongoing practice of domestic abuse perpetrators cross-examining victims.

28 women’s charities, solicitors, and survivors signed a letter addressed to Secretary of State for Justice Dominic Raab seeking to put an end to the “state-sanctioned abuse within court settings” that Farah Nazeer, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said women are still subject to, suggesting: “No one would expect a burglar to be allowed to question the person they held at knifepoint.”

The Women’s Aid chief said that, while the government’s commitment to end this practice in 2017 was welcomed, the charity “[remains] unconvinced these measures are protecting survivors of domestic abuse effectively”, adding:

“Without proper scrutiny, women are left unprotected, terrified and subject to further abuse.

We urge the Ministry of Justice to establish robust monitoring and evaluation to ensure the legislation is consistently implemented. The legislation must be extended to cover all child-contact cases in the system, not only those that have begun since July 2022, and we want assurances that enough qualified legal representatives are taking on this critical work.”

The letter has been sent ahead of the sixth anniversary of the government’s commitment to ban what the group have called an “abhorrent” practice.

The commitment, made in February 2017, was legislated only last year, in July 2022, under the Domestic Abuse Act and applied only to new cases, meaning that women already in the system have not been protected.

Other critical flaws identified by Women’s Aid include the fact that too few qualified legal representatives are signing up to undertake the cross examination in domestic abuse cases. Campaigners also highlight major concerns that without monitoring, there are no guarantees to ensure that the mandatory ban is actually implemented and suggests that without checks, perpetrators of domestic abuse can still/subject their victims to further abuse and trauma.

A 2020 report published by the Ministry of Justice identified “deep-seated and systematic issues” which impede and obstruct the family court’s ability to respond consistently and effectively to domestic abuse. The signatories to the letter call urgently for the full implementation of the harm panel’s recommendations to protect women and children experiencing abuse.

Jenny Beck KC, Solicitor and Director, Beck Fitzgerald, said:

“Until we properly tackle the ability of perpetrators to use the court process to abuse, access to justice will be compromised. The recommendations of the harm review need to be properly implemented with commitment to funding a process which is both trauma informed and keeps victims safe.”

Zoe Dronfield, survivor of domestic abuse, commented:

“I was cross-examined by my abuser, and it was worse than the attack by my ex-partner that almost killed me. To be branded a bad parent is the worst thing that can happen to a mother. I did not do anything wrong other than find myself a victim of horrific domestic abuse and violence, but I was dragged through the family court and cross examined by him to justify his abuse.

It is often used as a continuation of abuse right under the nose of a judge, yet victims can be goaded, triggered, and further traumatised.

This process allows perpetrators of domestic abuse to cross examine their victim in a court environment, which not only gives them a perceived power but allows them to legally continue emotional abuse of their victim which has a detrimental effect on their testimony. This is abhorrent and stands in the way of a right to fair justice.”

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