Child’s evidence – Part 2: contact and domestic violence

Child welfare, contact – and a practice direction


In Re S (a Child) [2017] EWCA Civ 44 (as explained in Part 1 of this series) the Court of Appeal allowed one ground only of a mother’s (M) appeal. That ground related to whether or not her eight year-old son, A, may have been physically abused by his father (F). M did not oppose contact in principle but wanted it to be safe for the child. (Though represented below, the child seems not to have appealled, nor to have made representations in the Court of Appeal.) As reported in Part 1 the parents had a short relationship. In the court below the judge had found three of M’s allegations proved: controlling behaviour and violence exacerbated by drink. A last allegation was based on what A had told a family support worker, but which the judge had rejected; though the judge had not heard what the child had to say about what had happened.


This series looks at how European law deals with child issues arising in connection with this case; and hypothetical issues which arise from it where law reform is need or is under review, as follows:


  • Child’s rights and Art 24 – Considered in Part 1.
  • Domestic violence and contact with A – How should the present and proposed PD12J, Child Arrangements & Contact Order: Domestic Violence and Harm effect this case (again this practice direction was not mentioned specifically in Court of Appeal)?
  • Cross-examination of M had F been unrepresented – How might the cross-examination of M been dealt with had F been unrepresented before the judge? This subject is now proposed by the Secretary of State for Justice (Ms Truss) to be reformed.
  • Relocation to Ireland and further hearings about A – To be considered in Part 3.


Children’s fundamental rights


This article looks at the Re S case (above). It is considered especially from the point of view of the child; in the light of rights of the child under EU Charter law; and of recent reforms to existing UK statute law (especially Children Act 1989 (CA 1989) s 1).


Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000/C 364/01) Art 24 on the ‘Rights of a Child’ states:


  1. Children shall have the right to such protection and care as is necessary for their well-being. They may express their views freely. Such views shall be taken into consideration on matters which concern them in accordance with their age and maturity.
  2. In all actions relating to children, whether taken by public authorities or private institutions, the child’s best interests must be a primary consideration.
  3. Every child shall have the right to maintain on a regular basis a personal relationship and direct contact with both his or her parents, unless that is contrary to his or her interests.


By contrast, PD12J (considered further below) requires consideration to be given to ‘Representation of the child’ as follows:


  1. Subject to the seriousness of the allegations made and the difficulty of the case, the court shall consider whether it is appropriate for the child who is the subject of the application to be made a party to the proceedings and be separately represented. If the court considers that the child should be so represented, it shall review the allocation decision so that it is satisfied that the case proceeds before the correct level of judge in the Family Court.


Amendments to Children Act 1989 s 1


Children Act 1989 s 1(2A) and (2B) were amended with effect from April 2014 in the context of the court dealing with the welfare of a child of a broken relationship as follows:


1 Welfare of the child 

(1)  When a court determines any question with respect to –

(a)the upbringing of a child;… the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration….

(2A) A court, in the circumstances mentioned in subsection (4)(a)…, is as respects each parent within subsection (6)(a) to presume, unless the contrary is shown, that involvement of that parent in the life of the child concerned will further the child’s welfare.

(2B) In subsection (2A) ‘involvement’ means involvement of some kind, either direct or indirect, but not any particular division of a child’s time.


These ponderous amendments to a previously clear section are elaborated upon in s 1(6):


(6) In subsection (2A) ‘parent’ means parent of the child concerned; and, for the purposes of that subsection, a parent of the child concerned –

(a)is within this paragraph if that parent can be involved in the child’s life in a way that does not put the child at risk of suffering harm; and

(b)is to be treated as being within paragraph (a) unless there is some evidence before the court in the particular proceedings to suggest that involvement of that parent in the child’s life would put the child at risk of suffering harm whatever the form of the involvement.


Welfare of a child is to equated with involvement – direct or indirect (s 1(2B)) – of a parent in a child’s life (s 1(2A)); but not where that contact, on evidence before the court, ‘would put the child at risk of suffering harm’ (s 1(6)).


In its original form Practice Direction 12J – Child Arrangements & Contact Order: Domestic Violence and Harm (PD12J) was designed to deal with questions of domestic violence alongside contact. It was issued in 2008 in response to the first report of Women’s Aid into ‘Twenty-Nine Child Homicides’. It was re-issued to in its present form, at the same time as introduction of the Family Court and of the amendments to CA 1989 s 1. More background to this is explained at Cris Curley’s article ‘Domestic Violence and the Impact on Contact Re-examined’.


PD12J contact and domestic violence


PD12J sets out as its purpose (§2) that it is intended ‘to set out’ what should happen in relation to contact proceedings where domestic violence is admitted, or that a child or a party has experienced domestic violence by a parent; or that there is a risk of such violence. In its present form it accompanies the CA 1989 s 1 amendments referred to above; but there is little attempt to link what is set out in PD12J to the formal provisions Family Procedure Rules 2010 themselves in relation to domestic violence proceedings (Family Law Act 1996 part 4 and FPR 2010 Part 10).


Amendments are now proposed in a report prepared by Cobb J for the President of the Family Division, ‘Review of Practice Direction 12J FPR 2010’  (18 November 2016). This may provide a move away from what has been seen under s 1(6) as ‘contact at all costs’ with a new §4 (see below) which displaces the presumption where contact could place a child at risk or the other parent’s life at risk, or either at significant harm. Law reform is needed here; but in what terms should this be done and by what means in law should it be achieved?


In an attempt to improve the position of children where domestic violence has been proved Cobb J proposes as follows:


  1. Where the involvement of a parent in a child’s life would put the child or other parent at risk of suffering harm arising from domestic violence or abuse, the presumption in section 1(2A) of the Children Act 1989 shall not apply. The Family Court presumes that the involvement of a parent in a child’s life will further the child’s welfare, so long as the parent can be involved in a way that does not put the child or other parent at risk of suffering harm.


A footnote to this paragraph explains:


The statutory presumption in section 1(2A) CA 1989 applies ‘unless the contrary is shown. Where the involvement of a parent in a child’s life would put the child or other parent at risk of suffering harm, then it is suggested that the contrary would indeed be shown. Paragraph 4 has been re-worked in order to give prominence to the avoidance of risk of harm.


Thus it is proposed that a practice direction should put a gloss on the law not provided for by Parliament.


Practice direction and law


A practice direction can neither create nor change the law. In that sense it is not law. It is there to guide procedure. In Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government v Bovale Ltd and anor [2009] EWCA Civ 171, [2009] 1 WLR 2274  the Court of Appeal considered whether a judge could make a practice direction or issue practice guidance. They explained what a practice direction is – now issued by the President of the Family Division with approval of the Lord Chancellor (Courts Act 2003 s 82).


The particular significance of this is that if an abused parent or child goes to court thinking that the new practice direction protects them, they may find that a judge is persuaded by the other parent that it does not. The judge may take the view that a practice direction cannot tell a court to ignore the law (as the proposed new §4 seems to do). This similar, though in different scale, to the Supreme Court telling the Prime Minister that she could not ignore Parliament and must have a bill for UK to leave Europe.


Thus, in Bovale, the Court of Appeal assumed that the function of a practice direction was subsidiary to and supportive of a rule which already defined procedure:


[36] … We accept that one object of the practice directions which supplement the rules is to provide guidance to litigants but they also contain directions as to the procedure that should be followed.


Children must be protected, especially where the court has evidence of their harm; but if this is to be done by restrictions on or refusal of contact this affects the rights of a parent and of the child. It must be done in a way which complies with law and brings the law in a fait way within the terms of Art 24(3) of the Charter (above). If it is to be said that, as a matter of law, ‘the contrary is shown’ (per CA 1989 s 1(2A)) and that the ‘involvement of [a] parent in the life of the child concerned’ may inhibit a child’s welfare, a statutory presumption is overridden by a practice direction. Thus where – as in Re S violence may be proved against him (it has been proved against A’s mother) – then those allegations must be stated in an Act of Parliament as the basis for findings under s 1(6); and the problems of the parents (mostly women) and children affected must be given the dignity in statutory provision (which does not include a practice direction) which their difficulties demand.


And the attempted change of the law must not, please, be left to be exposed as not-law by a violent father. That would enhance the abuse still further.


Further abuse by cross-examination


Abuse by cross-examination in family courts   looked at the issue of the experience – mostly of women – being cross-examined by an unrepresented former partner, against whom abuse is alleged. It was said by the all-parliamentary group which had reported in October 2016 whose report was considered there:


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.


Cobb J’s report proposes an addition to §28, which deals with the hearing of any contact issue:


  • The judge or lay justices must not permit an unrepresented alleged abuser to cross-examine or otherwise directly question the alleged victim, and must not require an unrepresented alleged victim to cross-examine or otherwise directly question the alleged abuser.

Victims of violence are likely to find direct cross-examination by their alleged abuser frightening and intimidating, and thus it may be particularly appropriate for tThe judge or lay justices may to conduct the questioning on behalf of the other party in these circumstances, in order to ensure both parties are able to give their best evidence


The article went on to look at measures which could be used to alleviate this issue on analogy with what is to be found in Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 (YJCEA 1999). Where domestic violence is alleged where contact is in issue the question and court proceedings there are therefore two immediate issues:


  • To ensure that it is not necessary for a complainant (A) or the child(ren) concerned (C) to be submitted to cross-examination by the alleged abuser (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 considers the question of cross-examination in person of C by B (the subject of cross-examination of A is dealt with in the article referred to and is now proposed for reform by the Secretary of State for Justice).


The analogy with criminal proceedings must be pursued. There a witness in C’s position is protected (YJCEA 1999 Part 2 Ch 2). 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 ). 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).


Cross-examination of the child


Dealing with a child’s evidence – as could be the case with the child A in the Re W case – calls for sensitive case management and special attention by the court. If it were to be approached as in criminal proceedings, it will call for public funding (now under review by the Ministry of Justice).


For children giving evidence in criminal proceedings YJCEA 1999 s 34 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.


YJCEA 1999 Part 2 Ch 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 witness, where the various forms of allegation 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.


Much may already be possible under the common law says Lady Hale (Re W (Children) (Abuse: Oral Evidence) [2010] UKSC 12, [2010] 1 FLR 1485  (a case involving evidence from a 14 year-old 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.


Child’s rights: contact and domestic violence


In R v Lubemba & Ors [2014] EWCA (Crim) 2064, [2015] 1 WLR 157 the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) was concerned with the evidence of another 8 year old (C). A judge had decided to refuse to hear in criminal proceedings. JP was one of two accused whose convictions were under review in the Court of Appeal, Criminal Division in that appeal. He had been convicted on three counts of sexual assault on C. Special measures directions had been given as Hallett LJ explained:


[9] … The child’s video interview, in which she gave a clear and concise account, was to be played as her evidence-in-chief and she was to be cross-examined by defence counsel, Mr Bennett, using the live link. He undertook to limit his questioning and to conduct his cross-examination in accordance with the Advocate’s Gateway Toolkit. All parties agreed that [C], described as an intelligent and capable witness, was willing and able to attend court to be examined and that the services of an intermediary were not required.


On day of the hearing, C attended court to be cross-examined over the live-link (YJCEA 1999 ss 18(1) and 24). The prosecuting barrister took defence counsel – both, not doubt, without wigs and gowns (YJCEA 1999 s 26) – to meet C. She was with her parents and both counsel thought she was content to give evidence. After this, and on his own, the judge went to see C and then announced to the court that C was unable to participate in the proceedings. Her only evidence was the video. She could not be asked any questions by the defence. Her parents gave evidence.


JP appealled on the ground that, because the judge had prevented any attempt at C being asked any questions he had not had a fair trial. His appeal was allowed. Of children giving evidence generally the Court of Appeal in R v Barker [2010] EWCA Crim 4  (per Lord Judge LCJ) said:


[42] The trial process must, of course, and increasingly has, catered for the needs of child witnesses, as indeed it has increasingly catered for the use of adult witnesses whose evidence in former years would not have been heard, by, for example, the now well understood and valuable use of intermediaries. In short, the competency test is not failed because the forensic techniques of the advocate (in particular in relation to cross-examination) or the processes of the court (for example, in relation to the patient expenditure of time) have to be adapted to enable the child to give the best evidence of which he or she is capable. At the same time the right of the defendant to a fair trial must be undiminished (emphasis supplied).


Call for law reform


Both areas of court process – contact arising from alleged violence and what proved violence requires in relation to contact – call for urgent law reform. That must include, on both points, reform of statute law. This will reflect the need for funding if alleged perpetrators are to cross-examine complainant of child witnesses in person. If statutory presumptions are to be altered for the protection of the children concerned, then this cannot be by practice direction. That is not enough if a parent against whom CA 1989 s 1(6) imputations are made against him/her who validly objects to what the proposed PD12J para 4 seeks to do.


And when all this is fully reformed, the Minister of Justice is urged to tell the Family Procedure Rules Committee that a practice direction is not sufficient to reform procedure. It must be as part of Family Procedure Rules 2010; it must span those parts of the rules which deal with children proceedings and with proceedings for domestic violence (FPR 2010 Part 10 and 12); and it must reflect the EU Charter and must take account of children’s evidence and views ‘in accordance with their age and maturity’ (Art 24(1) of the Charter).

2 thoughts on “Child’s evidence – Part 2: contact and domestic violence

  1. Reblogged this on | truthaholics and commented:
    “Both areas of court process – contact arising from alleged violence and what proved violence requires in relation to contact – call for urgent law reform. That must include, on both points, reform of statute law. This will reflect the need for funding if alleged perpetrators are to cross-examine complainant of child witnesses in person. If statutory presumptions are to be altered for the protection of the children concerned, then this cannot be by practice direction. That is not enough if a parent against whom CA 1989 s 1(6) imputations are made against him/her who validly objects to what the proposed PD12J para 4 seeks to do.”

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