Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prevent abuse of process in civil and family courts; to make provision about cooperation between court jurisdictions; to create offences when certain civil and family court orders are breached; to amend the rights and duties of certain parties to prevent abuse of process in civil and family court; and for connected purposes.
Since becoming a Member of Parliament in May 2015, I have endeavoured to do my best to further the interests of victims of gender-related abuse, stalking and harassment. In this I would aspire to follow in the footsteps of my predecessor, Elfyn Llwyd, whose work on coercive control legislation entered the statute books two years ago this month.
I am honoured to present this motion in collaboration with Harry Fletcher of the victims’ rights campaign, who, working alongside Zainab Gulamali of Plaid Cymru’s office and Speaker’s intern Ami McCarthy, has a worthy record of furthering the interests of victims here in Westminster. Our work earlier this year reviewed victims’ experiences of vexatious court claims, many of which had been initiated by perpetrators of abuse. A survey of 122 victims of stalking and domestic abuse gave us a snapshot of individuals’ unnecessary suffering and distress, as well as the courts’ unintended role. Our research uncovered that 55% of the victims had court proceedings taken out against them by their abusers. All these victims—this should be noted: all of these victims—had restraining orders in place. Two thirds of them had to appear in court, and a third were personally cross-examined by the perpetrator. In only a quarter of these cases did the police view the court proceeding as a breach of those restraining orders.
The purpose of this Bill is to limit the ability of perpetrators of primarily domestic abuse, stalking and harassment to use—indeed, to misuse or abuse—family and civil courts as a cynical and calculated method of causing further distress and exercising deliberate control over the actions of their victims. The Bill also strengthens the sanctions available for a breach of a restraining or other restrictive order. In the event of multiple breaches, the Bill introduces a presumption of custody.
The Bill gives the court the power to dismiss any meritless applications where it is apparent that their purpose is to harass or distress victims under the guise of an appeal to justice in matters relating to civil or family court jurisdiction. The applicant would be obliged to declare any unspent convictions and restrictions in relation to the respondent or similar convictions against other victims. The respondent would be given the power to inform the court of any relevant convictions or restraining orders in respect of the applicant. The court would have a duty to investigate such claims.
In such circumstances, if proceedings were permitted to continue, the respondent would be able to request special measures such as the provision of screens or video links. I bring with me today a dossier of case studies, and I will refer to some specific examples. It must be emphasised that abuse of process in civil and family courts affects both men and women, and causes distress and, in many instances, personal financial loss. The experience of children as pawns in adults’ power games needs to be remembered, especially when considering that family courts should be seeking a resolution in the best interest of the child. For obvious reasons, the names of all the people described have been altered. They would otherwise be likely to be subject to yet further abuse.
I spoke just last night to a mother in Wales who has been subject to domestic violence and harassment. She has been taken to the family court on five occasions without merit. She has had to give up her career and move house.
Richard has been a victim of stalking for over six years. His stalker repeatedly brings baseless, vexatious claims against him through the civil court. Richard has no option but to represent himself because of lack of funds. Despite the fact that his stalker is subject to a restraining order, he is allowed to cross-examine Richard in the civil courts. Neither the police nor the Crown Prosecution Service recognises these vexatious claims to be in breach of the restraining order. It is difficult to come to a conclusion other than that court procedures are presently colluding with the applicant in his continued abuse of the respondent.
Lucy’s ex-partner also has a restraining order, having been charged with stalking her. He has taken Lucy to court 15 times in both civil and family courts, which has cost her around £25,000 as, like many people, she is not eligible for legal aid in these circumstances.
Victims of abuse, often years of abuse, are obliged by court protocol to face their abusers, to sit with them in waiting rooms, to be in close proximity with them in court rooms, and to undergo cross-examination in person. In one instance, Julia, who had a history of mental illness, was sat alongside her previous partner in a family court hearing to decide child custody arrangements. He was able to whisper to her and play on her vulnerability to the point where she unexpectedly changed her standpoint, against what she previously had stated to be her wishes and her best interests. The judge noticed neither the communication in court nor the sudden change in her expressed position. This resulted in ongoing issues regarding custody of her daughter, preventing Julia’s access to her child over an extended period of time.
I have repeatedly been told that restraining orders are effectively not worth the paper they are written on. Let us remember that the purpose of such orders is to protect and safeguard people, many of whom would otherwise be living in fear or have previously experienced violence. I have recently obtained, by means of parliamentary written questions, statistics regarding compliance with such orders and their effectiveness in deterring abusive behaviour. The answers revealed that the majority of breaches do not result in custody, with 27% resulting in a fine or conditional discharge. As regards breach of order to prevent contact via social media, it is not even possible to get hold of data. In spite of this, victims report that such contact is commonplace. I know of one instance where the abuser threatened to kill family members of a former partner via Facebook Messenger. The police did not regard this as sufficient evidence of a breach.
To close, I would like to thank the supporters of the Bill. There is cross-party support for what it intends to achieve, and I look forward to opportunities to discuss how best to further its contents with the Government. Finally, I would like to emphasise the significance of training in bringing about institutional cultural change. MPs are, of course, would-be legislators, but the grim reality is that the best of laws always run the risk of failing to bring about the difference for the better for which they were originally drafted. Training for the relevant staff and ongoing monitoring will be essential if we are to shift the balance in favour of victims in ensuring that the justice system best serves their interests and welfare.
Question put and agreed to.
That Liz Saville Roberts, Jess Phillips, Tracy Brabin, Dr Sarah Wollaston, Tim Loughton, Alex Norris, Mr Alistair Carmichael, Alison Thewliss, Ben Lake, Jim Shannon, Caroline Lucas and Peter Kyle present the Bill.
Liz Saville Roberts accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 March 2018, and to be printed (Bill 141).