[Joan Ryan in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered progress on protecting victims of domestic abuse in the family courts.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ryan. We are here, for what seems like the millionth time, to talk about any progress on and the still numerous problems in the family court. We have been here before. We sought approval from the Government, and made gains with them, on issues presented by the all-party group parliamentary group on domestic violence. Unfortunately, a general election then got in the way, so all the progress that could have been made was lost. It is important to mention that, because that lost progress is not just one of those things; it means that, during this intervening period, hundreds and hundreds more women are being treated poorly while we do not get our act together.
I must say a massive thank you to the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and my hon. Friends the Members for Hove (Peter Kyle), for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) and, especially, for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith). Together, as a cross-party collective, we have been fighting for an improved family court system for victims of domestic abuse for a very long time. It is a pleasure to fight alongside them.
I must also thank the previous Secretary of State for Justice, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), who took a huge amount of flak from some quarters, some of which I think was because she was a woman. She was the only person in a ministerial post who ever really listened to us about this subject. She broke the deadlock and got the Government to agree with us, and I cannot but think that having a woman in such a position was the reason that that happened.
I thank Women’s Aid, which has done so much campaigning in the area, and many others: this week I have received briefings from all over the place, including the Law Society, the Magistrates Association, Barnardo’s and SafeLives. There is often friction among specialist women’s organisations, the judiciary and lawyers with regard to issues to do with violence against women and girls, and the court system. Often the problem is that we do not all sing from the same hymn sheet. Every single one of the briefings, however, whether from the Magistrates Association, the Law Society or one of the specialist organisations, makes at least one of three recommendations to Government. I will therefore focus on those specific recommendations and ask the Government to do something about them.
The first relates to perpetrators being able to cross-examine victims in the family court. If the general public had any real sense that that was happening, they would be absolutely horrified. Members of Parliament have come up to me in this place to say, “You’ll never guess what about this case in my constituency, Jess—her perpetrator was allowed to cross-examine her in court.” They are stunned to find that that is allowed to happen.
My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful speech, and I congratulate her on securing the debate. Does she agree that that loophole in the system makes those—usually women—who have been victims of domestic violence victims twice over, not only in the attacks that they have sustained but in a court setting?
Absolutely. It is, fundamentally, revictimisation and—if the Minister cares to browse the Equality Act 2010—illegal. There is a very real case for a public sector equality duty on the basis of gender to be made against existing practice in the family court. If such practice does not change soon, that is absolutely the route that people such as me will take, because our public sector is not meeting that duty.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing this incredibly important debate. Does she also agree that one problem in this country is that, still, only about 30% of judges are female? In other European countries the average is much more likely to be about 50%. In this country women often feel that their voices are not heard in that environment, thereby adding insult to injury. Terrible stories are being judged in court, but sometimes the women feel that they are not getting justice, simply because people often do not understand as no one else is female.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. We have to change the nature of our justice system from one that is fundamentally old fashioned and, at its very core, fundamentally male.
Every single one of the organisations that has been in touch with me has suggested specialist domestic abuse and sexual violence training for those involved in making judgments. Later, when I read out some of the victim testimonials, we will hear about the things that victims have put up with in court. It is as if some of those judges have never met another person, let alone know anything about domestic abuse.
The idea that in this country—still, today, right now, in the courts—a perpetrator is cross-examining a victim of domestic abuse, perhaps in order to gain access to their children, is absolutely harrowing. James Munby, the outgoing head of the family division of the High Court, made it very clear that he wished the practice to end. It is, of course, not something that happened by accident or that we ever saw when I was working in domestic abuse services; the practice is a direct consequence of the changes to the legal aid regime made by the coalition Government and this Conservative Government. As a result, it is now the case that not only perpetrators but—we must not forget this—victims must act as litigants in person. That practice would never be allowed in the criminal courts in our land. The Ministry of Justice, whose Ministers sit across from me today, rules out the use of that practice in a criminal setting on human rights grounds, but the very same Department allows it to happen in our family and civil courts every single day.
The hon. Lady is making an incredibly powerful case. Does she agree that it is absolutely obscene that people who need help the most, at a time of such vulnerability, are denied even the most basic support via legal aid to make their case? As others have said, that is revictimisation a hundred times over and it has to stop.
Absolutely. The Minister will no doubt respond by saying that the Government have made changes to legal aid in civil and family court cases involving domestic abuse, but every single day I am notified of at least one case of domestic abuse victims not being able to access legal aid in the family court. I am writing lots and lots of letters to the Legal Aid Agency to remind it of its duty to victims of domestic abuse and of the ruling on how long someone has to be free from violence or abuse. That limit was changed from two years to five years by the Government, but that was thanks once again to campaigners taking them to court—the Government did not make that change out of the kindness of their heart.
I certainly do not know of any. I will mention the recent study by Queen Mary University of London, in partnership with Women’s Aid, of how people are treated in the family courts. I am not aware of any Government reviews of the effect of litigants in person and, more broadly, of people being cross-examined by people who abused them, but I would certainly like to see one. If our courts and the Department are happy for that to go on, it is only right that they review whether it should continue.
Queen Mary University of London found that 24% of domestic violence victims who had gone through the family court system had been cross-examined by their perpetrator—someone who may have raped them, kept them prisoner or made them look on while they abused their children. We have the “achieving best evidence” standards in this country. I am not sure I can remember the bit in those standards that says the best way to get evidence in a justice environment is to allow someone who is utterly terrifying and has abused the victim to question them. I am not sure that we currently meet any sort of standard for achieving best evidence.
James Munby made it clear that the hands of family courts are tied—they simply cannot stop that cross-examination. Legislation is not in place to allow them to stop it. I know the Government want to stop it, too, and I am glad they heard our calls about that. I suggest that they do it. When the right honourable—I am not sure whether he is right honourable, and I am certainly not sure whether he is right or honourable—Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) embarrassed them on upskirting, a Government Bill was suddenly introduced to address that. It has been widely publicised that the House will sit for two days next week. I would gladly come back then to see through a piece of legislation that has been passed once already—it has already gone through rigorous scrutiny by the Clerks and the House. I would gladly pop down on a train from Birmingham to stop the cross-examination of victims of domestic abuse by their abusers.
The second area that everyone who has been in touch with me has given a lot of attention is practice direction 12J and new practice direction 3AA. I believe practice direction 12J was reaffirmed for magistrates courts and our family court system because, frankly, it was not being followed. For those who are not as geeky as I am about the old practice directions in the family court system, practice direction 12J basically undoes the idea that someone who has been abusive has a right to see their children. That is not an automatic right, especially in cases where there is domestic abuse. Practice direction 12J gives that steer to people making such judgments. I handled hundreds of cases involving domestic abuse, and I cannot say I ever noticed that practice direction being used. I have great faith in the Magistrates Association, and I believe from what it wrote to me this week that that direction has been affirmed.
I wonder whether the Minister will join me in stressing the importance of this very simple message: “If you beat, coerce, humiliate and abuse your children’s mother, you waive your right to be their father until the moment the non-abusive parent decides otherwise.” I am not saying for one second that no one who commits domestic abuse should be able to see their children, but they should not have a right to demand to see them where the non-abusive parent does not wish those children—and the children do not wish—to be put in that situation.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate and for the speech she is giving, and I send solidarity from all the women’s aid organisations in Scotland, which want this change to be made, too. I understand that in England there is a presumption that the welfare of the child is best served by the involvement of both parents. That is not the case in Scotland, where decisions are taken on the facts of the case. Does she agree that looking at each case individually—looking at the facts of the case, the situation and the risk—is a much better approach than an automatic presumption?
I totally agree. I can only praise Scotland for the progress it has made in this area. I very much would like the Minister to look at what happens there. I am sure it is by no means perfect, but it is a lot better than what we have here.
New practice direction 3AA requires courts to consider whether those involved in family proceedings are vulnerable and, if so, whether that is likely to diminish their participation in proceedings or—as I said—the quality of their evidence. What are the Minister and the Department doing to review the use of practice direction 12J following its reaffirmation? It has been around a long time. Can we conduct some sort of review of whether it is working or whether it needs updating, and of new practice direction 3AA? Both are key to ensuring that we can rebuild trust among victims of domestic abuse.
The third thing that every single person who has been in touch with me has raised is the issue of special measures in the family courts, which are woefully behind those in criminal justice proceedings. In some cases, the same woman may present at the same courthouse—literally the same building—and be offered different things. She would most likely be greeted at the door of the criminal court by an independent domestic violence adviser co-located in that courthouse, who would have arranged different times for her and would explain the system and help her find the special area for her in the court. She may then walk around the back of the building and go through a different door into the family court, where someone may say, “Oh, there’s Larry—you can just sit next to him, regardless of the years of abuse you have suffered.”
There is absolutely no excuse for the tardiness with which we have reacted to something we have known about for a long time. At least since I came to this place, we have been raising the need for separate rooms, separate arrival times and better evidence-giving opportunities, so that people do not just have a curtain around them but can give evidence from elsewhere via video link. Those are well-trodden practices in our criminal court system, but for some reason in the family court we seem unable to recognise that there is a victim. The fact that family court proceedings are civil proceedings in which both parties are considered equal does not mean that both parties are equal.
The hon. Lady is being generous in giving way. A number of my constituents who have gone through traumatic and abusive divorces have raised concerns with me about the family court. Is it not terrible that women do not feel our legal system protects them at the time they are most vulnerable?
What does my hon. Friend consider the ramifications of that failure to be for those victims? Does she think a lack of confidence in the judicial system, and particularly in the family courts system, could give rise to people staying in a domestic violence situation, thereby prolonging their situation and perhaps causing greater damage to their health?
There are lots of case studies in the papers in front of me where the consequence of a lack of trust or of a lack of safe and free access to our justice system is that women return. Women are now convinced that they will not win in a family courts setting. I would stay with somebody who beat me black and blue every day if it meant that I got to watch over my children and did not have to leave them alone with him. If someone has a violent partner and the choice is, “Leave them with this man, who you know is violent, or take the beating on behalf of your children,” we would struggle to find a single parent in the land who would do anything other than return.
The worst ramifications are, of course, that we are leaving people in violent homes. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge has handled one of the worst cases of failings in the family courts—the case of her constituent Claire Throssell, who is a personal hero to many of us in this House, and my hon. Friend will talk about that later. The ramifications are the deaths of women and the deaths of children. That can no longer go on.
I cannot understand why the special measures issue has not been sorted yet. It is not that hard to sort out. Every single court in the land has a robing room for the judges. How about putting the victims in there? I think the judges could put their robes on in the corridor. We manage it—I put my coat on just earlier. I have a fancy job, but I do not need a special room.
On the issue of special measures in courts, James Munby has said:
“In too many courts the only available special measure is a screen or curtains round the witness box. What, for example, about the safe waiting rooms for which the APPG has…called?”
I feel that he is personally talking to me in this quote. He goes on to say:
“The video links in too many family courts are a disgrace—prone to the link failing and with desperately poor sound and picture quality… The problem, of course, is one of resources, and responsibility lies, as I have said, with HMCTS and, ultimately with ministers.”
Those are the words of the outgoing president of the family division. Special measures are something we should invest in, and we should do so immediately. I welcome whatever the Minister can say today about any schemes currently in place to improve the situation, because 61% of the women surveyed by Women’s Aid and Queen Mary University of London were offered no special measures at all in the family courts.
Another issue that was raised was specialist support and advocacy for women going through the family justice system. I believe schemes are under way to pilot that issue up in the Northumberland area, where the brilliant Dame Vera Baird is the police and crime commissioner. There will be lots and lots of evidence of the value of the independent domestic violence adviser role in the criminal court and in community-based domestic violence services. With independent sexual violence advisers, the arguments are long ago won: having these advisers maintains victims within the process and means that they understand the process and can continue to try to get their rapists convicted.
There is no Government scheme or nationally recognised network for women facing civil issues through the civil courts, and I might argue that there is a far greater need there, not only because of the issue of litigants in person, but because—in an era when we have no representation for a lot of these women and many do not have any legal aid—having a system of advocacy in our family courts so that victims can understand exactly where they are meant to sit and what they are meant to present is something the Government should look at funding. Independent domestic violence advisers were launched under the last Labour Government, with match funding from local authorities and the Home Office, and I recommend that the Ministry of Justice creates a similar scheme, in partnership with the Home Office, for the family courts system. Certainly, every single one of the organisations that wrote to me called for that.
The next issue that everybody raised, which we have already touched on, is legal aid. Legal aid is currently available to victims of domestic abuse going through the family courts system, but that is still on a means-tested basis. There are all sorts of reasons why that system continues to fail victims of domestic abuse, meaning that they cannot access legal aid. The Law Society, which has written jointly with Women’s Aid to the Secretary of State for Justice, has called for a review into all the things I am talking about, but it and the Magistrates Association wanted me to stress today that the capital element of means-testing for legal aid is massively disadvantaging women.
Yes, a woman may well have been left after her ex-partner has put her through the wringer and no doubt left his name on her property, and it has probably taken her two or three years to get it off. She has already been through all that process, and she has managed to maintain a home where she and her children live, and that home now means she cannot access legal aid. I am not talking about the people who buy houses around Westminster; these are people living in my constituency, where it is about £120,000 for a three-bed semi, with one car on the drive. They are not rich people, and their capital means nothing in terms of their ability to pay. We cannot for a second suggest that they should be selling their house to protect their children from a violent perpetrator, yet, seemingly, we do suggest that.
Everybody has called for an end to the capital means test, which in many circumstances means that the equity in someone’s home should be used to fund legal costs. Of course, that is a double-edged sword, because if I were to use the equity in my home, I would then lose my home and would be much less financially secure—and when a woman is not so financially secure and has a precarious housing situation, it will be about 15 minutes before a social worker is saying to the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service that she should not be looking after her children, and we will end up in exactly the same situation we were in at the beginning. We are exacerbating things.
I am here to tell hon. Members from personal experience that, currently, victims of domestic abuse in the family courts system are, more often than not, unable to access legal aid. That has to change. The problem in the family courts with perpetrators, which I highlighted at the beginning, has been caused by this Government’s policy on legal aid—let us not use these things to twist the knife.
May I also add the support of Welsh Women’s Aid and campaigners such as Rachel Williams from Newport, whom my hon. Friend knows, for the debate? Is it not the case that such situations become more difficult because victims can be forced to return to family and civil courts time and again?
Absolutely. I will mention Rachel in closing. It gets lost that coercive control does not stop when a woman leaves her partner. Women’s risks massively increase once they leave, and they are more likely to be murdered. In Rachel’s case, this was when the most harrowing consequences played out for her and her children. Coercion does not all of a sudden go away, and we—the state—allow perpetrators to re-victimise women again and again by hearing the same case over and over.
There are judges who try to stop that pattern of abuse in courts, but they are not the norm. There are hundreds of cases in which the same woman will be taken through the wringer again and again. She will be told that she is mad, and things will be given to the court to show that she is mad. And, yes, she is mad: she has been driven mad by having to fight the same battle again and again. There has to be some limitation. A line has to be drawn in cases where domestic abuse is evidenced. That is incredibly important.
Let me move on to CAFCASS. I may start forwarding all the complaints I receive about CAFCASS to the Minister. I have an entire folder in my email inbox called “Complaints about CAFCASS”, which has around 800 emails in it. I get them from people from all over the country, and because I am standing up and saying this, I will get hundreds more. I create a file of all the problems that people have with CAFCASS.
There is a constant feeling that the children and the women are not listened to, that their experiences of domestic abuse are diminished, that they are considered to be in the wrong and that they have to constantly prove that they are telling the truth and have understood their own experiences. The main complaint I receive is that CAFCASS does not pay nearly enough attention to listening to children, which is a grave error. Barnardo’s said exactly the same in a submission to me—that there is a barren wasteland in all of this when it comes to listening to the voice of the child. We must work much more closely with them.
SafeLives sent me a series of briefings on its concerns about CAFCASS’s parental alienation models. We will all have heard about parental alienation from some idiot dressed as Spider-Man crawling up the side of a building—the idea that women purposefully alienate children from their fathers is well known.
Those people have won the war of rhetoric. If we ask anyone in the street whether they think family court proceedings are more likely to fall in favour of a man or a woman, every single one would say it was more likely to fall in favour of a woman. The reality is entirely different. In cases of the most severe domestic abuse, 38% of violent perpetrators—people who have been criminalised for abuse—are granted unsupervised access to their children. It is absolutely not the case that family courts are favourable to women. CAFCASS plays a severe role in marginalising women in that process.
Rachel, who has already been mentioned, sent me 199 pages of testimonials this morning, with about 10 to 13 testimonials on each page. That is thousands of testimonials about the situations that women face in the family courts. I will read a couple out:
“CAFCASS is not working in the best interests of the children, who are victims of domestic abuse themselves”;
“CAFCASS is enabling the perpetrators of abuse to gain more control”;
“CAFCASS did not talk to my children, who, too, are victims. Their voices were nowhere on the accounts”;
“They think that abusive partners are good dads”;
“They were incompetent, stupid, easily taken in by a manipulative perpetrator and aggressive towards me. One woman couldn’t even be bothered to know my name. They called my 999 call a ‘minor disagreement’ in their official records. They are a complete disgrace”;
“I, too, have had a terrible time with CAFCASS and the family courts. They were more supportive of my abusive ex than actually listening to my kids. Also, when my son made a statement and showed signs of abusive behaviour, they continued to put him through the court and pooh-poohed and belittled everything that we had to say.”
Those are just a few. Accounts were sent to me over the weekend from women who said that their perpetrators, some of whom had to be handcuffed, and who even kicked off during the family court proceedings, were congratulated by judges for remaining calm.
There is testimonial after testimonial from women who have been stared down by their partner and have capitulated in front of judges, just to make it stop. It is our responsibility to make it stop, so will the Minister commit to a timetable for when it will? I know that the Government want to stop this, but when will we actually do it? If I were to review the Government’s current policy, or this era in politics, I would write, “We did a review.” I ask the Minister to actually do something.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on securing this important debate. I also pay my respects to organisations such as Women’s Aid, which have raised many of the issues that have been discussed—specifically, judicial attitudes.
I know some of the difficulties with judicial attitudes because I did an Industry and Parliament Trust fellowship in the law courts, during which I spent almost three weeks sitting with judges. If she has the time, I urge the hon. Lady to undertake such a fellowship in the specific courts of interest to her, so that she can participate in how they work and see how they could change to achieve some of the aims that she holds so dear.
The one aspect of this issue that I raise above all others comes from my membership of the Council of Europe: the Istanbul convention. It is very important to the debate. [Interruption.] I see the hon. Lady nodding, so she knows of it. I mention it because it sets minimum standards for how domestic abuse and violence towards women and girls are treated in the member countries. Its primary aim is to protect victims. That is a very important point to bear in mind.
The convention ensures that domestic violence and rape crisis shelters are set up and that helplines and counselling are available for victims. Although the UK has signed the Istanbul convention, it has not yet fully ratified it because we still need a legal means of bringing elements of it into our legislation. Given that we are one of the countries that helped to produce the Istanbul convention, I hope that we move quickly to ratify it. If I may, I will read a brief quote from it:
“there can be no real equality between women and men if women experience gender-based violence on a large-scale and state agencies and institutions turn a blind eye.”
That is an important point to bear in mind. I hope the Minister will take the Istanbul convention into account in her response, because it provides the necessary framework for people to be able to tackle the issue.
My second approach relates to my role as a member of the Justice Committee. That may not seem immediately relevant, but the Justice Committee is a statutory consultee of the Sentencing Council. We recently looked at draft sentencing guidelines on domestic abuse. The previous guidelines were, I am afraid, last produced in 2006 and are completely out of date, particularly with society’s attitudes to domestic abuse and the standards that we want to see. The starting point is the definition of domestic abuse. If I may quote again, the guidelines state that it is:
“any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass”—
this is the important point—
“but is not limited to: psychological...physical...sexual...financial ...emotional”
issues. That range of different abuses shows that there is a great attitude among the judiciary: to change and try to incorporate a much broader spectrum of activities.
In our response to the Sentencing Council, we said that such offences need to be seen as particularly serious and not ranked on a par with other offences; they need to be sorted out as really important offences. Overall, we said that they needed to be condemned in the strongest possible terms. One of the paragraphs in the report stated:
“We recognise that recorded offences related to domestic abuse are largely, but not exclusively, perpetrated by men and boys against women and girls.”
“the various contexts in which domestic abuse may occur and the forms that it may take...Accordingly, we recommend that comprehensive training on domestic abuse and intimidatory offences should be provided to magistrates and the judiciary to coincide with the launch of the guideline.”
I was pleased to see that the judiciary has moved some way towards doing that and has begun the training required. The need for training has been recognised.
I heard the most heart-breaking story a year ago from a Bath constituent about a CAFCASS worker. She felt that the social worker allocated to help her through the process was absolutely not sympathetic and seemed not to have had any of that training. Should the training not also include the social workers allocated to help women through the process? Should not women have the right to pick the social worker to work with them?
I agree with the hon. Lady that the training can incorporate a large number of people, but we are dealing here with the courts and what we want to happen there. I am simply saying that the need for training has been recognised in the courts. It is also important to ensure that domestic abuse cases are flagged up properly as they pass through the court system so that everyone knows what is a domestic abuse case and can help to smooth it along the way.
To go back to the guidelines, they are overarching and recognise that a defining characteristic of domestic abuse is the harm caused. That harm goes to a violation of trust, which is a crucial element. Trust is a very important thing that we hold dear, and we should take that into account.
The third element that I want to touch on is the Government’s domestic violence consultation, which came out recently. I hope the Minister will provide information about how the process is going and the sorts of questions that will tackle the important issues we have raised today. I do not have a vast array of case studies of my own to share, but I have my experience of dealing with the courts; I also have experience, as has the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), of the Council of Europe and the Istanbul convention. I urge the Government to try to ratify the Istanbul convention as quickly as possible.
Order. I am sure everybody is aware of the time. I intend to start calling the Front Benchers at 3.40. If the three remaining speakers limit their remarks to about seven or eight minutes, everybody should be able to speak for a decent amount of time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ryan, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) said. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. At one point it looked as if I would have to step into her shoes, but I am really glad that she was able to lead the debate because under no circumstances could I have done the same job so well. She is a superb and brilliant advocate for women’s rights on this particular issue. Where would we be without her?
I welcome the new Minister to her position. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who has responsibility for this area of policy, would very much like to have attended the debate, but cannot because she is in a Bill Committee. I also want to put on the record my thanks to her for meeting my constituent, Claire Throssell, last Thursday morning. She was deeply touched and, indeed, disturbed by what she heard—not least the catalogue of errors and the dreadful handling of Claire’s case by CAFCASS. The Minister is committed to tackling the issues. It is a difficult brief to hold because of the sensitive and emotionally stressful nature of the subject. Although I do not doubt the Government’s integrity on this matter, or their commitment, I hope that the new Minister will pick up the reins and pursue the matter with diligence and speed.
In September 2016, I led a debate in the Chamber on domestic abuse victims in family law courts. I felt compelled to do so after Claire came to me for support.
“It took just 15 minutes for my life to end and my existence to begin,”
she said about the events that unfolded on 22 October 2014. On that day, her abusive ex-partner coaxed her two boys into the loft of the marital home, saying he had a new model railway for them to play with; but there was no railway. Instead, once the children were in, he locked the door, barricaded it and lit 16 separate fires around the home. On that day, Claire lost absolutely everything. Jack and Paul, her two beautiful boys, were brutally taken from her. Her “life and heart”, in her words, were “broken completely beyond repair”. The pain caused to Claire is unimaginable, but her strength and resilience is hugely impressive:
“If I can prevent one other mum going through the pain I’ve suffered, stop them having to question whether they could have prevented their child’s death, hopefully my sons didn’t die in vain.”
Those are Claire’s words and she has continued valiantly to confront her heartbreak every day and campaign to ensure that no one else ever feels her pain.
Claire is my constituent, but all parliamentarians have a collective responsibility to prevent such a tragedy ever happening again. The terrible thing is that what happened was totally avoidable. Claire warned the courts that Darren Sykes was a threat to her children. Social services, the family courts and CAFCASS failed Claire. It is two years since her story went into the parliamentary record, and what has changed? Practice direction 12J has been revised and a new practice direction 3AA has been introduced, which will help to protect vulnerable families in family courts. The Government have committed to banning the cross-examination of survivors by their perpetrators, but so far that has is yet to be enacted, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley pointed out. We need the special measures that she talked about to be introduced. Finally, a domestic abuse Bill is on the horizon; the consultation on the White Paper is complete.
The Bill will need to be substantial, thorough and comprehensive, but it will have to show breadth in the scope of its provisions. Women’s Aid’s most recent report “What about my right not be abused?” gives a damning verdict on the treatment of domestic abuse survivors in the family courts. I encourage all Members to read it and I encourage the Minister, in particular, to meet with Women’s Aid to discuss the recommendations in the report. It covers various aspects of the family courts, but I want to focus in particular on child contact, as it was the child contact policy that took Claire’s boys from her.
The report makes it clear that the
“culture of contact at any cost”
persists—something that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley pointed out earlier. There are several accounts of contact centre workers persuading terrified children to go and meet their fathers. One woman talks of a centre considering putting her daughter in a room and allowing her father to “ambush” her unexpectedly; those were their words, not mine. One woman said:
“They’ve taken away safety from my child and I pray nothing will ever happen. If it does I will always feel guilty but in the end there is nothing else I can do”.
That is exactly what Claire has set out to change. She wants our family courts to put children first, and to recognise that a man who abuses a wife or partner is more likely than other men to abuse his children. Those accounts and many others paint a picture of a court system that does not protect women and children, but rather perpetuates abuse, makes vulnerable people feel intimidated and puts the lives and safety of women and children at risk.
With those considerations in mind, I want to ask the Minister directly to outline the scope of the domestic abuse Bill and the accompanying measures. Those measures will be very important—particularly, I hope, in relation to CAFCASS. Will she confirm that reform of the family courts is on the agenda? The distinction between criminal and family courts in this context seems totally arbitrary; it certainly is for survivors of domestic abuse. Will the Minister outline the timetable for ending cross-examination of domestic abuse survivors by their perpetrators as, again, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley has already asked?
So far two legislative opportunities have been missed. We cannot afford to delay any further. Will the Minister ensure that no parent who is awaiting trial, on bail, or facing ongoing criminal proceedings for domestic abuse will receive unsupervised contact with a child? Will she also set up a clear mechanism so that inappropriate referrals to contact centres can be challenged? There are many more questions I would like to ask, but I must begin wrapping up. It is clear from the report that the family court system as a whole is not fit for purpose. Will the Minister consider running an independent inquiry into the handling of domestic abuse by the family courts? It is clear to me that a root-and-branch policy review is needed.
I remind Members again of the 2016 debate. I said then that it showed the House “at its finest”. We agreed on the need to take action and broadly accepted the course that needed to be taken. However, I also said that
“all of this means nothing until we see effective change.”—[Official Report, 15 September 2016; Vol. 614, c. 1119.]
Here we are, two years on, and Claire is still campaigning. Her two boys are yet to see justice. Claire has been a great teacher for me and a true inspiration. She possesses a deep spirituality that has enabled her to refuse the temptation to pursue a path of vengeance and hate. She has chosen instead to believe that love can triumph over hate and that good can triumph over evil. In doing that she has taken with her the whole community where she lives in Penistone, as well as, I believe, the whole parliamentary community. Claire has taken us all by the hand and enabled us to believe that we can be better, that our society can be better, and that her sons’ deaths need not be in vain. We cannot afford to delay longer; to delay is to put lives at risk. With Jack and Paul in mind, I ask the Minister: please act quickly.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on securing the debate and on her amazing and powerful speech. Hansard does not record blushes, but she has done a fantastic job, as ever, on an important subject.
When we talk about domestic abuse in this place, there is often a lot of commentary along the lines of, “What about the men?” Of course, we know that women are not the only victims of domestic abuse, but it is an unassailable truth that the vast majority are women, so I make no excuse for the fact that we are concentrating on women predominantly, and Women’s Aid has been an invaluable organisation in pushing the campaign on this issue.
I look forward to the introduction of the domestic abuse Bill. We have all been working towards it and pushing for it, and it will be welcome. I understand that one of the main reasons for the delay was that we were trying to get a good, rounded definition of domestic abuse and coercive control so that there can be legislation. In the 2016 debate, I raised a couple of examples of coercive control, one of which involved a family member of mine, to show that it is not something that just happens to other people. It can happen to people of any background, from any geographical area. The woman in question had a tracker put on her car—that was the level of control that the man wanted. That makes me think, “Crikey, what would have happened if she was in court with him?” if she faced that level of coercive control. That level of control, which might start with a tracker, can mean a repeat of abuse in court, bringing up time and again the previous horrific instances.
Before we look at what we are pushing for in campaigning, it is important to acknowledge the good things the Government have done. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley correctly said that, in too many cases, there are still curtains and screens around certain areas. However, family procedure rules part 3A and practice direction 3AA came into effect only in November last year, and they will, unfortunately, take time to get through the court system—indeed, certain areas that require separate waiting rooms might even need new construction.
None the less, more can clearly be done, and I take the hon. Lady’s point about robing rooms—we have one of those here, so perhaps we can think about that as well. We must speed up action to ban perpetrators from cross-examining victims in court, because there cannot be anybody in this place who believes that that is right. Women’s Aid has said that a perpetrator can be seen as a violent criminal in a criminal court but as a good enough parent in a family court, which is patently ridiculous.
The hon. Lady mentioned the need for more female judges. Clearly, the numbers and percentages are too low, but that in itself is not necessarily the origin of bad judgments. Indeed, it was a female judge who sent Ellie Butler back to my constituents in Sutton, which resulted in her death shortly afterwards. We need judges who are not out of touch and who can relate to people—the hon. Lady referred to that. We need a judiciary that can take a rounded position, in the same way that anybody outside a court room might think, “My goodness. This is so obvious. Why are we not doing it?”
In conclusion—I know other Members want to speak—let me say to the Minister that I am looking forward to the domestic abuse Bill. If I can help in any way in formulating it and pushing it through this place, I would be more than happy to do so, because we have been waiting for this Bill for so long.
It is always a pleasure to speak in these debates, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on setting the scene. She is obviously very passionate when it comes to this subject, and she tells her story straight from the heart. She does that well, and I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to this debate.
Statistics for domestic abuse throughout the UK are astounding. The prevalence of such abuse is difficult to measure, but the English, Welsh and Northern Irish police receive calls about domestic abuse-related incidents every 30 seconds, which gives an idea of the magnitude of what is happening across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
In 2014, a report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, “Everyone’s business: Improving the police response to domestic abuse”, deemed the police response to domestic abuse “not good enough”. As the hon. Lady and other hon. Members have said, if that response is not good enough, what are we doing to improve it? I always look to the Minister for a substantive response, which I know we will get, but I hope she understands that there is a bit of frustration about what has happened so far. A follow-up report by the HMIC was published on 15 December 2015. Entitled “Increasingly everyone’s business: A progress report on the police response to domestic abuse”, it found positive changes, which was good news, but concluded that there is still room for improvement. We must consider what further steps we can take.
Being the victim of, or witnessing, domestic abuse, can have serious long and short-term physical, psychological and social effects. Numerous police interventions that are victim-focused or perpetrator-focused are currently in use or being trialled. According to statistics published on the website of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, around 29,000 domestic abuse incidents were recorded in 2016-17—the most in more than a decade. I know this is a devolved matter, or at least it would be if we had a working Assembly, but at the end of the day we must address it.
The level of recorded domestic abuse crimes dropped for a while, but that was not enough. In 2016-17, 69% of domestic abuse crime victims were female and 31% were male. More than 50% of relationships between domestic abuse victims and offenders were categorised as being between current or ex-spouses or partners.
I have spoken several times on this issue in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber, and I have asked for support for people who are abused. I have also raised the lack of prosecutions, which I believe to be linked to fear of reprisal. We must hope for things to be different. A Women’s Aid worker once told me that these women go back to their abusers because they have no hope, and that is the story I hear as the elected representative for my constituency. When someone is hopeless, they are also helpless, which worries me greatly. We need to provide support that brings hope that things can and will change.
The Crown Prosecution Service’s 10th report on violence against women and girls outlined the huge increase in the number of convictions—48% for rape and 79% for other sexual offences—that we have witnessed since the first report was published in 2007-08. That report also showed large annual increases over the last year in prosecutions and convictions for rape, at 11.8% and 11.2% respectively, and for other sexual offences, at 12.5% and 14.7%. Along with domestic abuse, such offences now count for one fifth—19.3%—of the CPS’s case load, which is up from 7.1% just 10 years ago. That is a massive step. Domestic abuse prosecutions have risen by 47%, and convictions by 61%, over the last 10 years—again, a welcome indication of progress.
However, this year’s report shows a decrease in domestic abuse prosecutions and convictions compared with 2015-16, following a two-year fall in referrals for domestic abuse from the police to the CPS. There is clearly a breakdown that must be addressed if we are to have more successful prosecutions, and, to me, that is all about support. Support must be available when the call to the police is made and when the police leave, and there must be someone available for the victim to talk to so that they feel secure. Someone should be available through the CPS to sit alongside the victim and offer assistance, as well as to be a shoulder to lean on and perhaps sometimes to cry on. Support should be available during the trial and afterwards. Hope for a new future and a new life must be given from that first phone call reporting the abuse until the person is settled in their new life. We must follow a process to ensure that happens. Anything less than that cannot be acceptable, and all Departments must accept their responsibility and duty.
On average, there are two domestic killings of women each week, which accounts for 40% of all female murders. If we are not shocked by that, there is something wrong. Some time ago, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley spoke on this issue in an Adjournment debate in the main Chamber—I was present for that as well—and we must all uphold our duty of seeing the number of these killings reduced to zero. The way to do that is to support the men and women who are abused, so they know there can be a different future—a future with hope and purpose, for which it is worth pushing through the emotional quagmire, and standing up and telling the abuser, “No more.” The police have a role to play in that, as do the courts. We in this House have a role to play, as does the Minister, in securing funding and appropriate legislation. So let us ensure today that we play our part.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ryan, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for securing this debate. Since entering Parliament, she has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of women in her constituency and across the country, and she has pushed domestic violence up the Government’s agenda. I am in awe of her work.
Even today, domestic violence remains one of the most under-reported crimes, and in Britain one woman is killed every three days by a partner or ex-partner. According to the Office for National Statistics, four in five victims of partner abuse did not report the incident to the police last year. Although some progress has been made in recent years, victims still talk of battling to be believed by a system designed to protect the perpetrator. Even worse, the process of reporting abuse can be re-traumatising in itself. Victims talk of having to re-live the experience over and over again—first with the police and then in court, all the while dealing with the fear of reprisal from the perpetrator.
If we want to eradicate domestic violence from this country and have a truly accessible justice system, we must make that system more open and supportive to survivors of domestic violence. Today, however, we are a long way from that goal. The Government’s removal of legal aid for family law cases in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 had a catastrophic impact on access to justice for victims of domestic violence. Between 2012 and 2017, applications for civil legal aid in cases involving domestic violence fell by 20%. The imposition of a five-year limit on evidence and the restriction of evidence forms meant that 40% of female survivors were unable to meet the new requirements and were left without access to legal aid. According to Women’s Aid, the result was that victims were either prevented from fighting their cases or forced to represent themselves in person and risk being cross-examined by their partners.
In December, I uncovered figures showing that the number of domestic violence victims representing themselves in the family courts had increased by 147% since LASPO’s introduction. Recent figures from the Ministry of Justice show that the number of people without representation in domestic violence proceedings reached record levels in 2017. Imagine facing the decision between representing yourself in court, without legal support, against an abusive partner, and risking their obtaining custody of your children.
I pay tribute to the organisations, such as the charity Rights of Women and the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, that ensured that last year the Government finally published reforms to the evidence requirements for accessing the DV gateway for civil legal aid. Those changes were long overdue. However, we have yet to see a significant impact. Just 56 applications for legal aid in other family proceedings such as custody cases were made to the DV gateway in 2017-18; the figure was down from 83 in 2013-14. Can the Minister tell us what steps the Government are taking to ensure that victims of domestic violence are aware of the changes to the evidence requirements for accessing legal aid in the family courts?
Legal aid is available to victims of domestic violence on paper, but in reality the wholesale removal of family law cases from its scope means that people are now hard-pressed to find someone to represent them. Recent figures published by the Ministry of Justice show that the number of family law cases started with the assistance of legal aid has fallen by 84% since LASPO’s introduction. The figures also show that the number of legal aid providers giving support in family law cases has dropped by one third, with legal aid deserts opening up in parts of the country. The number of providers has fallen by 22% in London, but by 45% in the east of England and Wales. The devastating truth is that access to justice is simply not available for many victims up and down the country, because of this Government’s changes to legal aid.
For victims who do make it to the family courts, the ordeal does not stop there. Survivors frequently report being re-traumatised in the family court room, with the perpetrator allowed to continue their abuse by manipulating the court process. Women are still routinely cross-examined in front of or even by the perpetrator in what can be a deeply traumatising process; and outside the courtroom, survivors can come face to face with the perpetrator.
Opposition Members welcome the Government’s announcement of a new domestic abuse law, including the introduction of special protection measures for victims of domestic abuse. However, those protections must be available to victims in the family courts and not just the criminal courts.
A survey by Women’s Aid of more than 100 survivors who had been through the family courts showed that more than half had no access to special measures, and more than one third were verbally or physically abused by their former partner, in the family courts. Measures such as video links, screens and separate entrances, and exit times can be life saving; they prevent victims from being followed home by their abuser or confronted outside the courtroom. I understand that the Government have just finished consulting on the domestic abuse Bill. However, they have no reason to leave us in any doubt about where they stand on this issue. Can the Minister confirm today that family courts will be included in proposals to introduce special court measures for victims of domestic abuse, and will the Government set a deadline for when that right will become fully accessible to every victim of domestic abuse?
Of course, to support victims of domestic violence to have real access to justice, we have to do more than ensure that the courts are acting as a safe space. For survivors to come forward and access the justice process, they need security outside the court as well. We are extremely concerned about the proposals to remove refuges from the welfare system. The Government’s plans to remove housing benefit as a means to pay for refuge accommodation would remove half of refuge funding overnight. Currently, more than 10% of these women are forced to sleep rough because a place in a refuge is not available. We are calling on the Government to take those dangerous proposals off the table.
Our justice system is designed to protect the perpetrator, not the victim. Important checks and balances ensure that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, but they also routinely leave victims feeling like an afterthought in the process or, worse, like the person on trial. The issues raised today demonstrate the urgent need for reforms. Will the Minister commit to a wholesale review of the culture, practice and outcomes of the family courts in child contact cases where there are allegations of domestic abuse?
More generally, Labour has been pushing since 2015 for a stand-alone victims law that would enshrine the rights of victims in primary legislation. We need a victims law, rather than piecemeal reform, if we are to transform the experience of victims in the criminal justice process. More than three years ago, the Government agreed, and pledged, to introduce a victims law, but victims are still waiting. Now, instead of legislation, Ministers speak of a victims strategy, so can this Minister confirm when the victims strategy will be published? Do the Government still plan to introduce a stand-alone victims law as they promised?
Today, we have heard passionate speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House on the need to ensure that victims of domestic violence receive the protection, support and representation that they need in the family courts. Let me now use my position to pay my respects to Claire, about whom my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) spoke so heartbreakingly and movingly. I hope that the Minister has listened to Claire’s story and the other stories raised today and realises that significant reform is urgently needed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for securing the debate. Like other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the huge amount that she has done to protect victims of domestic abuse—not only the work that she has done as an MP, which includes chairing the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence, but what she did before she was elected, in working for a charity supporting victims of domestic and sexual abuse.
We all know, and have heard today, that domestic abuse has devastating effects. I heard about some of those when I attended a meeting of the APPG at which a victim gave evidence anonymously about her experience. Since I have been a Justice Minister, MPs have come to me to share their constituents’ experiences of domestic abuse. I am pleased to have had the opportunity both to discuss those concerns with experts such as Katie Ghose from Women’s Aid and Jo Todd from Respect and to hear about domestic abuse victims’ experiences of court from professionals in the courts, such as Her Honour Judge Rachel Karp, and academics such as Rosemary Hunter.
The Government are committed to tackling domestic abuse—dealing with abusive behaviour and improving support for victims. We want to do more to protect and empower victims, communities and professionals to confront and challenge domestic abuse wherever they encounter it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) and other hon. Members mentioned, the Government have launched an extensive public consultation on domestic abuse to inform our approach to future reform. We have received more than 3,000 responses, which we are analysing now, ahead of publishing a Government response in the autumn. That will include a domestic abuse Bill, which we hope will further protect victims of domestic abuse.
As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley said, we need to ensure that the court experience supports victims of domestic abuse and is not a forum in which to continue abuse. The Government have already taken a number of measures, to which some hon. Members have referred, to improve the court process. We have made practical changes following work with the senior judiciary. Last November saw the introduction of new rules requiring the court to consider whether those involved in family proceedings are vulnerable and, if so, whether they need assistance, such as a video link or protective screen, to participate or give evidence.
I was disappointed to hear that the experience of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley is that those measures are not working well, because I recently met a family barrister who told me that her experience was that they were working. We do need to keep this under review. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is collecting data, so that we can see how it is operating. We will consider whether we can do more, as we examine consultation responses in due course.
We have also introduced fresh training for family court staff on how to support vulnerable court users—by ensuring that separate waiting rooms or secure entry into and exit from the building are available, for example. The training has now been rolled out across England and Wales. Courts are also preparing local protocols on vulnerable court users, in consultation with their designated family judges. The president of the family division and the Judicial College have also taken steps to improve domestic abuse training for family judges. Issues of domestic abuse continue to be addressed on an ongoing basis as part of the college’s regular training for family judges. I recently visited the courts in Liverpool and was interested to hear from a family judge that he had found the training very helpful.
A further positive development came last October, when the president made changes to the guidance for family judges dealing with applications for child arrangements orders where domestic abuse is alleged. As hon. Members have mentioned, that is practice direction 12J. The revisions included a number of important changes, such as making it clear that family courts should have full regard to the harm caused by domestic abuse and the harm that can be caused to children from witnessing such abuse. The revised practice direction also includes an expanded definition of domestic abuse.
These changes are a positive development. At a roundtable on domestic abuse that I held recently, I heard from family judges and practitioners how they were working. I was asked during the course of this debate whether we can review the practice direction. That is primarily a matter for the judiciary, but I am happy to discuss it with the incoming president of the family court, whom I am meeting tomorrow. I should add that the current President, Sir James Munby, will be retiring shortly. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley mentioned, he has been a strong advocate for improving support and protections for the vulnerable. I pay tribute to the significant action he has taken in this area.
Many hon. Members mentioned the provision of legal aid. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley mentioned, we have changed the law to make it easier for victims of domestic abuse to access legal aid and support by reforming the evidence requirements for legal aid in private family cases. The changes included introducing new forms of evidence and removing the time limit previously placed on evidence. We are already seeing a positive effect on the number of victims accessing legal aid. The latest statistics for January to March show that 21% more victims applied for legal aid than in the same quarter last year and there was a record high number of grants. We will continue to monitor those figures.
We have made changes to support victims of domestic abuse, but we need to do more. The hon. Members for Birmingham, Yardley and for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) were right to highlight the importance of bringing forward legislation in relation to the cross-examination of domestic abuse victims by their perpetrators. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley has made a powerful case for this for some time and she made it again today. It is right that we get it on the statute book. She has already rightly identified that the Government want to see this legislation on the statute book. The Government remain committed to delivering this as soon as parliamentary time allows.
The hon. Lady knows that it takes some time to go through parliamentary procedure and it is not possible to do that on Monday or Tuesday next week.
I have also heard concerns about the issue of abusers making repeated applications to the family court, as a means of further abusing their former partners. I recently held a roundtable with judges, academics and others from the legal profession, to discuss this. I also met the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) to discuss the private Member’s Bill she proposed on the matter. The family court does have wide powers to manage such situations, but I am looking again at whether there is more we can do across the system to tackle this issue. We will be examining this as part of the next phase of work on the consultation.
Many hon. Members mentioned important points. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley made interesting points about the recognition society and Government have of the nature of abuse, and that it is not just physical abuse and violence that form domestic abuse. He also discussed the need to see how the courts are operating. I have visited a number of courts already and spoken to a number of judges on a variety of issues. He raised the Istanbul convention, which, he rightly said, the Government have signed and remain committed to ratifying. Some of our measures in the UK, however, go further than the convention requires in some areas.
The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) raised the need for CAFCASS workers to be trained. I should point out that CAFCASS workers do receive comprehensive training. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) made a variety of sensible points. He rightly observed that, in a number of areas, the Government have already taken measures, some of which I have referred to. It is important to see how those operate and keep them under review. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the impact of domestic abuse on victims.
I have left to the end the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith). She asked a number of questions, one of which was about the scope of the review and whether we will consider options for reform of the family justice system in the consultation that has just closed. I can tell her that that will form part of the consultation exercise. I left her to the end because she mentioned the terrible story of Claire, for whom we all must feel sympathy. I hope that this Government, with the support of hon. Members across the House, continue to bring forward measures to protect women like her, to help support them and ensure that her story is not repeated.
In closing, I hope hon. Members will agree that we have taken positive steps to improve the family justice system and its response to domestic abuse. We need to build on that and deliver further improvements. The domestic abuse consultation and the programme of work that will flow from it provides one way of doing this. I look forward to working collaboratively with hon. Members to take this important work forward.
Like the Minister and the Opposition spokesperson, I thank everybody who has spoken. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) never fails to move me when she talks about Claire. I have known Claire for two years now and have heard her story a million times. It still moves me to tears every single time I hear it, because it could have been avoided.
I thank the Minister for her comments. At the latest, the timetable for changing these things must come in the domestic abuse Bill. If they are not in it, we will ensure that they are put into it. I look forward to working on the domestic abuse Bill. I am sure that we will be able to make some progress.
On the issue of CAFCASS workers receiving appropriate training, I say to the Minister that it is not working. There needs to be a Government review of CAFCASS and the way its workers are interacting with victims, as well as of settings where families go for visits. There needs to be a real look into that. Most importantly, I thank all the women who write to me every day to tell me about how we should make this system better. We should hear their voices.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered progress on protecting victims of domestic abuse in the family courts.