Vulnerable witnesses and children: human rights and legal aid

Cross-examination of victims of domestic violence

 

Women’s Aid and the Guardian are concerned about the lack of protection for victims of domestic violence in family courts where their alleged abuser is permitted to cross-examine them. This article develops some of the ideas touched on in my earlier Vulnerable witnesses, parties and children in family proceedings at https://dbfamilylaw.wordpress.com/2017/01/05/vulnerable-witnesses-parties-and-children-in-family-proceedings/. The wider problems of vulnerable witnesses and of children in family cases go much deeper than this, as will be explained. The question to be addressed here is: can these problems be helped by legal aid under the existing statute and common law? Sir James Munby P (or his Ministry of Justice draftsperson) thinks not. I think he – or the Ministry – may be wrong.

 

On 20 December 2016 the Ministry of Justice published a statement by Sir James which articulated ‘the pressing need to reform the way in which vulnerable people give evidence in family proceedings’. Family justice ‘lags woefully behind the criminal justice system’, he said. The problem identified by Women’s Aid arises where an alleged abuser (‘B’: generally male, though not invariably) personally cross-examines the victim (‘A’) in (say) domestic violence proceedings; including, as the Guardian says, by ‘tormenting’ her in court.

 

Under press pressure the Justice Secretary, Lynn Truss, has ordered a review. In reality the problems, partly those of the women in A’s position, go much deeper than Truss’s review. In truth they are a feature of the unmet legal need faced by the real shortcomings in our family just system when it comes to protection of child witnesses and other vulnerable witnesses (as identified eg by Amnesty International: see eg Cuts that hurt (2016) Amnesty International (https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur45/4936/2016/en/)).

 

‘Urgent attention’ judicially requested 10 years ago

 

The problem identified above is precisely illustrated by the facts in H v L and R [2006] EWHC 3099 (Fam) [2007] 2 FLR 162 where an alleged abuser (ie B) wanted to cross-examine the abused mother (A) of his child. Roderic Wood J said, in a judgment given over 10 years ago (7 December 2007):


[25]   I would invite urgent attention as to creating a new statutory provision which provides for representation in such circumstances, analogous to the existing statutory framework governing criminal proceedings as set out in the 1999 Act. Such a statutory provision should also provide that the costs of making available to the court an advocate should fall on public funds. I can see no distinction in policy terms between the criminal and the civil process.

 

The same can apply, in exactly the same way, to child or young adult victims of alleged abuse (see eg Re A (Sexual Abuse: Disclosure) [2012] UKSC 60). H v L and Re A are 10 and five years old respectively; yet the problem subsists. Judges think they are powerless to help, lawyers – it seems – can see no way through and the Ministry of Justice is impervious to the problems. This article question whether, in law, the judges are as powerless as they and the President seems to think.

 

Child and vulnerable witness protection in criminal proceedings

 

In criminal proceedings in the parallel situation, the child or other vulnerable witness (eg a party to alleged domestic abuse) cannot be put in this ‘tormented’ position. In relation to a child, s/he has automatic protection by the court having power to impose and order payment from public funds of an advocate to cross-examine a victim. YJCEA 1999 Part 2 Ch II (ss 34-40) is entitled ‘Protection of witnesses from cross-examination by accused in person’. By analogy in family proceedings this can be taken to include one allegedly abusive party of another, of a witness (as in Re A (above) or of a child. The tone is set by s 34 (a subject more widely explained by Lady Hale in R (D (a minor)) v Camberwell Green Youth Court [2005] UKHL 4, [2005] 1 WLR 393; and see Evidence in family proceedings by David Burrows (2016, Family Law/LexisNexis) at Chs 8 and 19):

 

No person charged with a sexual offence may in any criminal proceedings cross-examine in person a witness who is the complainant, either—

(a)in connection with that offence, or

(b)in connection with any other offence (of whatever nature) with which that person is charged in the proceedings.

 

YJCEA 1999 Part 1 Ch II widens the spectrum of offences to deal with other forms of abusive allegations. Section 38(4) provides that and advocate ‘must’ be appointed to cross examine (as mentioned in the otherwise unhelpful Re K & H (Children) [2015] EWCA Civ 543)) to protect a victim, where ss 34-36 apply:

 

(4) If the court decides that it is necessary in the interests of justice for the witness to be [cross-examined other than by accused in person], the court must appoint a qualified legal representative (chosen by the court) to cross-examine the witness in the interests of the accused.

 

The advocate has no ‘responsibility’ to the accused (s 38(5)). Procedure for appointment, which could be adapted for use in family courts is fully set out in Criminal Procedure Rules 2015 (‘CrPR 2015’) Part 23.

 

Resources implications; legal aid

 

Sir James’s statement (or the MoJ draftsperson) continues: the family courts judiciary cannot act because ‘it requires primary legislation and would involve public expenditure. It is therefore a matter for ministers’. This is unlikely to be the law. Yes, public expenditure is involved; but much of this can be provided under judges existing common law and statutory powers (including use of YJCEA 1999 ‘special measures’ by analogy) and with full use being made of exceptional case funding (LASPOA 2012 s 10(3))).

 

In Re W (Children) (Abuse: Oral Evidence) [2010] UKSC 12 (a case involving evidence from a child witness) Lady Hale spoke of existing measures and of family court judges’ reticence to use them (emphasis added):

 

[28] The family court will have to be realistic in evaluating how effective it can be in maximising the advantage while minimising the harm. There are things that the court can do but they are not things that it is used to doing at present. It is not limited by the usual courtroom procedures or to applying the special measures by analogy…. One possibility is an early video’d cross examination…. Another is cross-examination via video link [or] putting the required questions to her through an intermediary. This could be the court itself, as would be common in continental Europe and used to be much more common than it is now in the courts of this country.

 

Scale of the problem in family courts

 

The problem is much wider than the Justice Secretary seems to understand. In 2014 a working group was set up by Sir James to consider the evidence of vulnerable witnesses where this might be ‘diminished’ by their attendance in court as witnesses, parties or other participants in family proceedings (considered further in http://www.familylaw.co.uk/news_and_comment/family-proceedings-common-law-and-vulnerable-witnesses).

 

The group produced draft rules in mid-2015. The draft took many leads from criminal proceedings under Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 (special measures to help children and vulnerable witnesses). Still no new rules have been formalised. The draft covers children and vulnerable individuals. It includes – but this is only one element – provision for those who are subjected to further abuse by being cross-examined in person by their alleged abuser. Victims include one of a former couple; a child who gives evidence proceedings; or any other witness in family proceedings.

 

The Ministry is aware that the rules amendments have resources implications; but so too have the 1999 adjustments in criminal proceedings. In family proceedings legal aid could be used in European Convention 1950 exceptional case funding for vulnerable parties and children; and many of the criminal proceedings measures are already available but not used, in family proceedings as Lady Hale has pointed out in Supreme Court (Re A (Sexual Abuse: Disclosure) [2012] UKSC 60, [2013] 1 FLR 948 at §[28]).

 

Exceptional case funding

 

Legal aid may be available as an ‘exceptional case’ (LASPOA 2012 s 10(1)) where funding is not otherwise available under the relatively narrow range of representation under the main civil legal aid provisions of LASPOA 2012 Part 1 Sch 1 (available civil legal services). Section 10(2) then goes on to provide that is the LAA considers the case appropriate for an exceptional case determination and an applicant is available on means, civil legal services can be provided. Section 10(3) defines an ‘exceptional case’:

 

(3)For the purposes of subsection (2), an exceptional case determination is a determination—

(a) that it is necessary to make the services available to the individual under this Part because failure to do so would be a breach of—

(i) the individual’s Convention rights (within the meaning of the Human Rights Act 1998), or

(ii) any rights of the individual to the provision of legal services that are enforceable EU rights, or

(b) that it is appropriate to do so, in the particular circumstances of the case, having regard to any risk that failure to do so would be such a breach.

 

In R (ota Gudanaviciene & Ors) v The Director of Legal Aid Casework & Ors [2014] EWCA Civ 1622 the Court of Appeal made clear that ‘Exceptionality [under s 10(3)] is not a test’ (§[29]), it is a descriptor of the legal aid to be granted. The court (at §§[31]-34]) explained how the Legal Aid Agency should treat and assess an application for exceptional case funding.

 

Resolution of resources questions

 

YJCEA 1999 ss 16 and 17 create three categories of witness who may be eligible for assistance by a special measures direction. A witness under 17 is automatically entitled to assistance (s 16(1)(a)). Secondly, s 16(1)(b) deals with incapacitated witnesses (as defined in s 16(2)); and  thirdly, s 17(1) with witnesses effected by “fear or distress”. In the last two cases the court must be satisfied that any evidence “is likely to be diminished” by the circumstances of evidence being given. In what follows “witness” by analogy will include a party in family proceedings.

 

If a witness comes within one of the categories in YJCEA 1999 ss 16 or 17 s/he may be eligible for special measures assistance (YJCEA 1999 ss 23-30), including: preventing a witness from seeing a party (YJCEA 1999 s 23); evidence by live link (s 24); hearing a witness’s evidence in private (s 25); video recorded evidence or cross-examination (ss 27 and 28); and questioning a witness through an intermediary (s 29) or device (s 30). In family proceedings, the measures available for a witness would be the same as for a party.

 

If the tormenting or other in-court abuse of the witness/party denies her a fair trial, including because the value of her evidence is ‘diminished, it is not a fair trial fair for her or for the party for whom she is giving evidence. European Convention 1950 Art 6(1) rights are engaged. Means assessment permitting, and if legal aid is not already available, she may be entitled to legal aid as an exceptional case determination (LASPOA 2012 s 10(3)). If this is correct, resources questions can be addressed now, without changes to primary legislation. The law in this area – which Lady Hale’s comment in Re A [2012] above clarifies – could be represented by:

 

  • The list of special measures in YJCEA 1999 ss 23-28 as developed and explained by Lady Hale in Re W can be applied, by analogy or where otherwise already available, in family proceedings;
  • Regard being paid to the victim – ie A’s – right to a fair trial; and as to what is required to ensure she can give evidence of a quality which is not diminished (YJCEA 1999 ss 16 and 17); and
  • If rights are required to be protected by special measures and an intermediary (or cross-examination by an advocate in the same way as in YJCEA 1999 s 38(4)), then is her trial fair without this (if resources must be spent)?

 

If the answer to the final question above is ‘no’, then her fair trial rights, are engaged. If she has legal aid under a certificate within the terms of LASPOA 2012 Sch 1 paras 11-13 (domestic violence, children etc), then this needs amendment to secure intermediary or advocacy help (on analogy with YJCEA 1999 s 38(4)). If not, and fair trial rights are in issue, then s 10(3) exceptional case determination may be engaged.

 

Effective, imaginative and pro-active case management

 

The practical and resources issues which children and vulnerable witnesses raise fall into two main categories:

 

  • A as a victim or alleged abuse: that is, in the situation identified by the Guardian and Sir James Munby P (and dealt with in H v L and R (above) and (less satisfactorily) in Re K & H (Children) [2015] EWCA Civ 543 sub nom K and H (Private Law: Public Funding)[2016] 1 FLR 754
  • The child or other vulnerable individual (as eg defined by YJCEA 1999 s 16 and 17) – or a party, under the same pressures in family proceedings – who gives evidence, which may be diminished by the circumstances of the case, and where special measures are called for (see Lady Hale in Re W [2010] (above) and Re A (above)).

 

Given what was said by Lady Hale in Re W the second category of cases resolves itself by effective, imaginative and pro-active case management which, as Lady Hale asserts, judges can do, but fail to take on (things ‘the court can do but … that it is [not] used to doing at present’: Re W per citation of §[28] above). If a party has legal aid – and practitioners should be wary of any statutory charge issues if the certificate applies to other proceedings – then proactive case management and full use of court resources (eg video-link; live-link and screens) can deal most special measures. If particular intermediary support is needed and this has resources issues amendment of legal aid will be needed.

 

YJCEA 1999 s 38(4) (quoted above) – if this is taken as a model for now for what follows – deals with potentially abusive cross-examination, where B is unrepresented, by imposing on B an advocate (who is not ‘responsible’ to B). It requires him/her to assist the court and to ensure, in the circumstances, that B has a fair trial; and to do so by cross-examining A. This is funded by B cannot in law do so. How would that work in family proceedings? Under YJCEA 1999 s 40 payment from public funds is provided for (and the working of these payments is touched on by Justice denied? The experience of unrepresented defendants in the criminal courts April 2016, by Transform Justice at p 15 (http://www.transformjustice.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/TJ-APRIL_Singles.pdf). If the Ministry of Justice can do this for victims in criminal proceedings, why not the same for those in a similar position – perhaps being cross-examined on the same facts as those in criminal proceedings – in family proceedings?

 

‘Special measures’ and legal aid

 

Category (1) (above) represents the Truss review problem. This can be funded – now – from an existing certificate (Sch 1 paras 11-13). If para 11-13 legal aid is not available, then if A’s evidence is ‘diminished’ and a fair trial threatened, Art 6(1) is engaged; and s 10(3) may bite. Either way, can YJCEA 1999 s 38(4) be applied by analogy in family proceedings? And, if so, can it be funded by legal aid?

 

With CrPR 2015 Part 23, s38(4) provides a model for court advocate appointment. B has a fair trial: his ‘accuser’ is professionally cross-examined. The following argument can be tested in the Family Division, alongside Lady Hale’s Re W§[28] comments:

 

  • a High Court judge has inherent jurisdiction to regulate the court’s procedure;
  • justice would be promoted (perhaps only made possible: operation of YJCEA 1999 Part 2 readily attests to this) by a ‘s38(4)’ appointment
  • this assistance cannot now be funded direct from public funds (cf YJCEA 1999 s40)
  • with pro-active case management this can be done on legal aid certificate (either under a conventional Sch 1, or a s10(3), certificate).
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2 thoughts on “Vulnerable witnesses and children: human rights and legal aid

  1. Reblogged this on | truthaholics and commented:
    “‘Special measures’ and legal aid

    Category (1) (above) represents the Truss review problem. This can be funded – now – from an existing certificate (Sch 1 paras 11-13). If para 11-13 legal aid is not available, then if A’s evidence is ‘diminished’ and a fair trial threatened, Art 6(1) is engaged; and s 10(3) may bite. Either way, can YJCEA 1999 s 38(4) be applied by analogy in family proceedings? And, if so, can it be funded by legal aid?

    With CrPR 2015 Part 23, s38(4) provides a model for court advocate appointment. B has a fair trial: his ‘accuser’ is professionally cross-examined. The following argument can be tested in the Family Division, alongside Lady Hale’s Re W§[28] comments:

    a High Court judge has inherent jurisdiction to regulate the court’s procedure;
    justice would be promoted (perhaps only made possible: operation of YJCEA 1999 Part 2 readily attests to this) by a ‘s38(4)’ appointment
    this assistance cannot now be funded direct from public funds (cf YJCEA 1999 s40)
    with pro-active case management this can be done on legal aid certificate (either under a conventional Sch 1, or a s10(3), certificate).”

  2. Pingback: Abuse by cross-examination in family courts | dbfamilylaw

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