Abuse by cross-examination in family courts


Law reform, Women’s Aid and a Parliamentary domestic violence group


The All-Party Parliamentary Group report on domestic violence, Domestic Abuse, Child Contact and the Family Courts All-Party Parliamentary Group on Domestic Violence (APPG report) of October 2016  (https://www.naccc.org.uk/downloads/NewsItems/APPG_Inquiry_report_Domestic_Abuse_Child_Contact_and_the_Family_Court.pdf) deals with domestic abuse and with contact in the context of family cases where contact is ordered. This article deals only with domestic abuse in the context of family court proceedings, and in particular the further abuse which may be inflicted by cross-examination of the complainant (A) by the alleged abuser (B); and, perhaps to a lesser extent, where A – as a party – may wish to cross-examine B. This is a subject covered extensively on this site already (and parts of previous detail are repeated here). This takes the subject further by reference to the APPG report and concludes with specific suggestions for law reform, which teh Justice Secretary might like to consider.


The issue is described by the APPG report (page 4):


Women and children’s experiences of domestic abuse do not end when the relationship with their abuser ends…. Many women report feeling re-victimised and re-traumatised through the family court process, they can find it difficult to access formal legal advice and representation, and now routinely end up being cross-examined by their abuser when they are representing themselves in court as Litigants in Person.


The report recommends ‘special measures’ which in family courts terms are proposed to include ‘dedicated safe waiting rooms for vulnerable witnesses and separate entrance and exit times [for them in all] family courts’. These measures could go much wider, especially – as discussed here – in relation to Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 (YJCEA 1999) and as highlighted by Lady Hale in the Supreme Court in Re W (Children) (Abuse: Oral Evidence) [2010] UKSC 12, [2010] 1 FLR 1485 at §28 (and see https://dbfamilylaw.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/vulnerable-witnesses-and-children-human-rights-and-legal-aid/).


Where domestic violence and court proceedings there are therefore two immediate issues:


  • To ensure that it is not necessary for A to be submitted to cross-examination by B; and
  • If A wishes to cross-examine B, and she does not have legal representation, to ensure that cross-examination for her is carried out fairly by someone else who is suitably qualified.


This article therefore proposes:


  • Ways in which some funded help for A (under (1) and (2) above) can be provided as the law now stands; and
  • Specifically to draft a suggested law reform which can be set out as a Schedule to an existing Bill and added as an amendment to Family Law Act 1996 Part 4 (which deals with the present statute law on domestic violence).


Family proceedings: lagging behind criminal proceedings


On 20 December 2016 the Ministry of Justice published a statement by Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division which articulated ‘the pressing need to reform the way in which vulnerable people give evidence in family proceedings’. The need of the abused party (A) was highlighted in H v L and R [2006] EWHC 3099 (Fam) where a father (ie B) wanted to cross-examine his child’s abused mother. The judge, Roderic Wood J, ‘invited urgent attention’ (§[25]) to judges being given power to appoint a publicly funded advocate in criminal proceedings as under YJCEA 1999 s 38(4). 10 years later, beyond a review urged by the Guardian and Women’s Aid and ordered by the Justice Secretary, Lynn Truss, nothing has happened.


In criminal proceedings, a witness in A’s position is protected (YJCEA 1999 Part 2 Ch II). The court may – sometimes must, by law – provide protection by imposing an advocate on the unrepresented B (who would otherwise have the right to cross-examine: European Convention 1950 Art 6.3(c)) to cross-examine a victim (s 38(4); and see Evidence in family proceedings by David Burrows (2016, Family Law/LexisNexis) at Ch 8 http://www.jordanpublishing.co.uk/practice-areas/family/publications/evidence-in-family-proceedings#). The court appointed advocate has no ‘responsibility’ to the accused (s 38(5); Criminal Procedure Rules 2015 Part 23). The advocate is paid from public funds (s 40).


Complainant: a party to proceedings


Criminal proceedings in this area are procedurally different from civil proceedings, and especially family proceedings; though both are capable of dealing with the same set of facts, though with different results. In criminal proceedings Crown Prosecution Service takes proceedings. Though A is the complainant, she is a witness so there will always be a CPS advocate to deal with her evidence in court and to cross-examine B. In family proceedings she is, by definition, a party. She still gives evidence and may be cross-examined (as in (1) above, considered more below); but, if unrepresented, she is responsible for running the case and for cross-examining B (ie (2) above).


So if she may not best be able to deal with cross-examination of B, because intimidated or for all the reasons she may want an advocate appointed, then already – that is, as the law now stands – Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 s 31G(6) says:


(6) Where in any proceedings in the family court it appears to the court that any party to the proceedings who is not legally represented is unable to examine or cross-examine a witness effectively, the court is to –

(a) ascertain from that party the matters about which the witness may be able to depose or on which the witness ought to be cross-examined, and

(b) put, or cause to be put, to the witness such questions in the interests of that party as may appear to the court to be proper.


So long as a judge accepts that A is ‘unable to… cross-examine’ B – and in the context a judge should need little persuasion of that – then s 31G(6) applies and the judge will ‘ascertain’ from A matters which need to be put to B and will question him him/herself in terms which are in A’s ‘interests’.


Section 31G(6) has been the subject of a small amount of case law; but, for the avoidance of doubt in the area defined by (2), a clear steer (ie a finding) by the common law (ie by a High Court judge in a decided case) on the subject as soon as possible would be helpful.


Cross-examination of the complainant


It is the situation at (1) above which calls for extra care, and for public funding. Formal parliamentary law reform would be infinitely preferable, to put the issue beyond doubt. However, if A is legally aided then it is suggested here that help along the lines of YJCEA 1999 Ch 2, and especially ss 38(4) and 40, could be available and be treated analogically in family proceedings.


Chapter 2 starts the way it means to go on. It leads with s 34 which reads:


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.


Chapter 2, as its heading asserts, is designed to provide ‘Protection of witnesses from cross-examination by accused in person’. YJCEA 1999 s 38(4) deals specifically with cross-examination of a defence witness, which is prohibited as far as the defendant personally is concerned. It provides that an advocate ‘must’ be appointed to cross-examine to protect a victim, where the various forms of abusive situation in 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.


YJCEA 1999 s 38(5) says that the advocate is ‘not responsible’ to the defendant, which must be taken to mean that, as for any advocate, his/her duty is to the court and that he must, in fairness to both complainant and the defendant, do his/her best in objective terms to secure for both a fair trial; but s/he has no client and takes direction from the court. Procedure for appointment is set out in Criminal Procedure Rules 2015 (‘CrPR 2015’) Part 23.


Payment is by public funds. YJCEA 1999 s 40 (as an insertion to Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 s 19(3)) says – with no fuss, and under the heading ‘Funding of defence representation’:


… To cover the proper fee or costs of a legal representative appointed under section 38(4) of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 (defence representation for purposes of cross-examination) and any expenses properly incurred in providing such a person with evidence or other material in connection with his appointment.


Funding of help for the complainant: legal aid and Human Rights Act 1998 factors


Sir James’s 30 December 2016 statement continues: judges cannot act because ‘it requires primary legislation and would involve public expenditure’. Supreme Court authority doubts this. Much can be done by judges under the common law says Lady Hale (Re W (Children) (Abuse: Oral Evidence) (above) (a case involving evidence from a child witness) the family courts can act (italics added):


[28] There are things that the [family] 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.


If B’s cross-examination genuinely ‘diminishes’ (see YJCEA 1999 s 16) A’s evidence and denies her a fair trial, her European Convention 1950 Art 6(1) rights are engaged. If legal aid is not available (ie the case is outside LASPOA 2012 Sch 1 paras 11-13 (domestic violence etc)), A should apply for exceptional case funding (LASPOA 2012 s10(3); R (Gudanaviciene) v [LAA] [2014] EWCA Civ 1622). Resources questions can be addressed under the present law, whatever Sir James and Truss’s review say.


Common law and a fair trial


Witness/party protection and fair trial rights depend on:


  • Special measures (equivalent to YJCEA 1999 ss23-28 and per Re W [28] (above)) applicable in family proceedings; and
  • A has a right to a fair trial; and to give evidence of a quality which is not ‘diminished’ (akin to YJCEA 1999 s16).


If the above is right A must be protected by special measures such as a ‘s 38(4)’ equivalent advocate: is her trial fair without this? If the answer is ‘no’ then A’s fair trial rights are engaged, and LASPOA 2012 s 10(3) may apply. This article argues that protection for A can be funded – now – from an existing legal aid certificate (Sch 1 paras 11-13) and pro-active common law case management. And, it must be stressed: this is not a plea for Presidential ‘practice guidance’ or a ‘tool-kit’. It is a straight-forward urging – with Lady Hale’s Re W words in mind – to a High Court judge to order appointment to be funded from a civil legal services certificate (the that judge is willing to find it within his/her inherent jurisdiction). It is a straight question of whether the common law is willing to move in that direction.


If para 11-13 legal aid is not available, then if A’s evidence is ‘diminished’ (within the terms of YJCEA 1999 s 16), and if a fair trial is thereby threatened, European Convention 1950 Art 6(1) is engaged. LASPOA 2012 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, s 38(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).


Law reform and public funding: the court appointed advocate


Finally, what about statute law reform? It will be assumed, first, that s 31G(6) does what it is said to do above, but common law clarity would be helpful.


This leaves the court-appointed advocate, the funding of that advocate and amendments to the rules to cover that. For example, drawing directly on YJCEA 1999 ss 34, 38(4) and 40 amendments to Family Law Act 1996 along the lines of the following could be passed in Parliament:


  • In the circumstances set out in paragraph (2) no person (B) who is the subject of an application under this Act may in any family proceedings cross-examine in person a party (A) to those proceedings who is the complainant in connection
  1. with that application; or
  2. in any other proceedings in which the allegations the subject of the application arise [ie to cover issues also in eg contact proceedings].


  • The circumstances referred to in paragraph (1) are that A has made an application under this Act and has requested the judge that an appointment be made as at paragraph (3) below.


  • If application is made under paragraph (2) for A to be cross-examined other than by B the court must appoint a qualified legal representative (chosen by the court) to cross-examine the witness in the interests of the accused.


  • The person appointed at paragraph (3) is not responsible to B


  • To cover the proper fee or costs of a legal representative appointed under Family Law Act 1996 s ## [ie (3) above] (respondent’s representation for purposes of cross-examination) and any expenses properly incurred in providing such a person with evidence or other material in connection with his or her appointment [shall be met from public funds].


This will need tightening up a lot; but it represents a start….

One thought on “Abuse by cross-examination in family courts

  1. Pingback: Child’s evidence – Part 2: contact and domestic violence | dbfamilylaw

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