Increasing numbers of victims of domestic abuse are being grilled in family courts by their former partners as a result of cuts in legal aid, many family law specialists have warned.
Emma Pearmaine, a family law specialist at Simpson Millar and director of the Leeds Law Society, said:
“The number of women being cross-examined by abusive ex-partners in court has doubled in my experience since 2013. Judges do their best to step in and control cross-examination situations where it is a case for an injunction, or non-molestation order, for example, but they should be there to adjudicate on the case – not manage behaviour as a priority.
“These women are some of the most vulnerable in society and they now have no real protection. They are let down from start to finish. They suffer abuse at home then torment from their abuser in court. For them there is no sense of justice.
“The authorities should be doing more to protect these victims’ dignity – it’s surely common sense these vulnerable women aren’t degraded further. Changes need to be made to allow women in these sort of cases free legal protection.”
Exceptional Case Fund
An Exceptional Case Fund (ECF) was set up by the Ministry of Justice to assist individuals with access to legal representation. This is supposed to assist victims of domestic violence victims in obtaining free legal advice however, from April to December 2013 only eight applications for family law representation were granted out of 617 applications. Statistics published by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for the period April to June 2014 show that out of 125 ECF applications for family representation only five were granted.
Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd, a family law specialist commented:
“There are fewer cases coming forward because of the costs of obtaining a report to begin proceedings, usually between £80 and £150. For women who do make it to court it is unacceptable for alleged abusers to cross-examine their victims. Steps have been taken in criminal cases for that not to happen but it seems inevitable now in cases where neither side has representation.”
High Court Battle
A survey by campaign group Rights of Women found that 61 per cent of women experiencing domestic violence, who had been denied legal aid, consequently did not progress their family law problem. Rights of Women was successful in a High Court battle last month to challenge the legality of the Government’s legal aid cuts and a full hearing in relation to the issue will now take place.
Emma Scott, director of Rights of Women, said:
“This is an important step in holding the Government to account on their promise that family law legal aid would remain available for victims of domestic violence. We know from the women affected that it denies them access to the legal remedies which could enable them to leave violent and abusive relationships and find safety.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said that as there were no published statistics relating to women being cross-examined by abusive partners, there was “no evidence to support” Ms Pearmaine’s claims:
“Judges can intervene to prevent inappropriate questioning, or have questions relayed to the witness rather than asked directly. This government is crystal clear that people who have suffered or are suffering from domestic violence, legal aid must be available to help them break free from the abusive relationship.”