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Munby: Cross-examination of vulnerable people should be banned

A senior judge has called for a ban on the cross-examination of vulnerable people in family proceedings.

Sir James Munby said he would like to see an end to the way in which alleged perpetrators of domestic abuse are able to cross-examine their alleged victims.

“I have expressed particular concern about the fact that alleged perpetrators are able to cross-examine their alleged victims, something that, as family judges have been pointing out for many years, would not be permitted in a criminal court,” said Sir James Munby. “Reform is required as a matter of priority.”

Munby said he had been raising the pressing need to reform the way in which vulnerable people give evidence in family proceedings since 2014, adding that he had made it clear that “the family justice system lags woefully behind the criminal justice system”.

His comments came after a Guardian investigation recently revealed how violent and abusive men are being allowed to confront and cross-examine their former partners in court hearings that fail to protect women who are victims of abuse.

Mothers involved in family court hearings told the Guardian graphic descriptions of the “torture” of being questioned by abusive men. They describe how former partners can make repeated court applications to continue the harassment and in one case, a mother was cross-examined for two hours by her ex-husband despite him being the subject of a restraining order to keep him away from her.

Sir James Munby said he would “welcome a bar”, on abusive men being able to cross-examine women but recognised that the judiciary cannot provide this, because it requires primary legislation and would involve public expenditure.

“It is therefore a matter for ministers. I am disappointed by how slow the response to these issues has been and welcome the continuing efforts by Women’s Aid to bring these important matters to wider public attention,” said Munby.

In April, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Domestic Violence launched a report highlighting the urgent need for an end to cross-examination of survivors of domestic abuse by their abuser in the family court.

The APPG launched the inquiry after becoming increasingly concerned about the safety of women and child survivors of domestic abuse within the family courts. The Child First campaign by Women’s Aid, which prompted the Hearing, calls for children’s safety to be at the heart of all decisions made in the family courts, and for survivors of domestic abuse to have access to protection measures when on the family court estate. This includes an end to cross-examination of a survivor by their abuser.

The APPG has identified seven key recommendations from the report which include:

  • The government must put an immediate end to survivors of domestic abuse being cross-examined by, or having to cross-examine, their abusers in the family court.
  • The Ministry of Justice and President of Family Division must ensure that special measures, such as dedicated safe waiting rooms for vulnerable witnesses and separate entrance and exit times, are available throughout family court proceedings and any subsequent child contact, to ensure the safety and well-being of both vulnerable women and children.
  • The Ministry of Justice, President of the Family Division and Cafcass must ensure Judges and court staff in the family court, Cafcass officers and other frontline staff in other related agencies receive specialist face to face training on all aspects of domestic violence, particularly coercive and controlling behaviour, the frequency and nature of post-separation abuse, and the impact of domestic abuse on children, on parenting and on the mother-child relationship.
  • The Ministry of Justice, President of the Family Division and Cafcass must ensure expert safety and risk assessments in child contact cases are carried out where there is an abusive parent involved and they must be conducted by a dedicated domestic abuse practitioner who works for an agency accredited to nationally recognised standards for responding to domestic abuse.

Sir James Munby concluded: “I am currently considering the review of Practice Direction 12J undertaken by Mr Justice Cobb, who met with Women’s Aid during the course of his review. I expect to make decisions on the review early in the New Year.”

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