Debates between Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames during the 2019 Parliament

Wed 3rd Feb 2021
Domestic Abuse Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee: 4th sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 4th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords

Domestic Abuse Bill

Debate between Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Portrait Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab) [V]
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I will speak briefly on these amendments. It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, and indeed all the speakers in this thoughtful and very practical debate.

I support Amendments 131 and 133 in particular. On Amendment 131, the Minister has already said that under no circumstances should the address be disclosed of the refuge in which the sufferer of domestic abuse resides, but we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Bertin, of the extraordinary lengths to which perpetrators will go to stalk or otherwise pursue their victims. We have also learned of not only the physical danger to which this exposes the sufferer but the mental fear and anguish that it perpetuates.

The Government accept the principle that an address must not be disclosed in any circumstances because of the potential appalling consequences, but unless non-disclosure is a legal imperative captured in the Bill, embedding this principle and maximising compliance with it will be weakened. Ambiguity and thoughtlessness in releasing a victim’s address will be allowed to prevail, with all the potential consequences we know that could reap.

The formal procedures of a court are intimidating enough for any citizen to think at least twice before embarking on a judicial case. How much more intimidating it must be for those who know that their very life might depend on the anonymity of their whereabouts. If they have any doubt that they can rely on the court to protect them, that in itself could be a deterrent against proceeding with their case. Putting this amendment in the Bill would be an enormous reassurance to a victim, and a greater discipline and constraint on those who could potentially release their address.

On Amendment 133, it is worth reminding ourselves of the amount of evidence we have heard about just how traumatic survivors of domestic abuse find the court process. One cannot help thinking that some of those procedures were designed, even if not intentionally, to daunt or dishearten those who did not have the greatest confidence either in themselves or in the merits of their case being understood and accepted, especially as waiting times are as long as they are. Those who have had their confidence and courage systematically beaten out of them might be forgiven for thinking that the courts are not there to help them.

From reading the debate in the other place on the Bill, I was struck in particular by a comment from Peter Kyle MP, a long-time campaigner on these issues. Having recounted the awful experiences of some of his constituents, he went on to say that in his lobbying for change

“Minister after Minister told me that a cultural change was needed in the … justice system.”—[Official Report, Commons, Domestic Abuse Bill Committee, 11/6/20; col. 271.]

The evidence submitted to us in the briefings from Refuge and other organisations suggests that there are too many such instances of judges and other professional workers in the judicial system failing to understand the dynamics of domestic abuse and so failing the survivor, who has often made a brave and fearful decision to make the accusation and come to court in the first place.

Most organisations and systems must at some time accept the need for cultural change, and it is never easy. I hope that this proposal is not dismissed on the basis that such soft skills do not belong in a court of law. The courts have come a long way but, on the evidence of the many cases that we have been told about in letters and briefings, they clearly have further to go. Putting this requirement in the Bill would be a real signal of intent to make that change. I noted what the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, said, and if the Minister is inclined to agree with her, I hope that he will take personal responsibility for ensuring that the necessary training is undertaken.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I broadly welcome this group of amendments. Although I have concerns about some of them, which I will explain, and it may be that the precise drafting of some would benefit from revision before Report, it is clear that they are drafted and tabled with a view to responding to the harsh plight of victims of domestic abuse as they go through the court system. If they have a common thread, it is about understanding and responding to the vulnerability of victims and the trauma of the abuse that they have suffered.

I will make a few points on each of the six amendments. On Amendment 131, it is plainly right that the addresses of refuges should be kept confidential. The whole point of a refuge is to enable victims of domestic abuse to feel safe from their abusers. It is of the essence that victims should feel confident that they will not be sought out and found by abusive former partners. Often such victims are with children, and the trauma that they have suffered at the hands of their abusers has left them not only protective, but scared for their own futures and those of the children who have come with them to the refuge. Courts must guard against giving refuge addresses away.

We have heard that abusers have traced victims to refuges as a result of carelessness within the court system, which has sometimes had serious results. The noble Baroness, Lady Bertin, gave us a harrowing example. It may be that the provisions of the amendment are slightly too wide, and that the assumption that refuges can be expected to have both an office and a residential address is too optimistic, as my noble friend Lady Hamwee pointed out, but the principle is one that I hope the Government will welcome.

Amendment 132 is designed to ensure that courts dealing with different cases of domestic abuse involving the same victims share information with each other. This is to enable greater co-operation between courts and to ensure that where, for example, criminal proceedings and family proceedings concerned with the same victim are continuing alongside each other, each court will know about the proceedings in the other. Again, the amendment may need some redrafting to achieve clarity, but the principle is right. However, I wonder whether an enlarged or parallel provision should be introduced requiring a similar exchange of information between courts involving the same abusers, as this amendment deals with information about the same victim.

Amendment 133, concerned with training for the judiciary and professionals in the family court, is the most important of these amendments, as my noble friend Lady Hamwee, the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and others, have reflected, though I share the hesitation of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, about enshrining this in primary legislation. Judges generally try to keep up to date with evidence about domestic abuse and try hard to apply the law in accordance with the evidence that they hear, putting aside, as far as they can, their own prejudices. However, we must recognise that most judges and legal professionals come from a world that differs dramatically from the world that is home to many of the litigants who come before them: victims, abusers, witnesses and others. The more training that judges and professionals receive in understanding domestic abuse, the better.

The amendment as drawn does not define how the training is to be established, except that it is to be in consultation with the domestic abuse commissioner. On reflection, I think that is right. We have a commissioner- designate who is genuinely expert in this field and dedicated to achieving an improved response to domestic abuse. I believe that training should also encompass learning to recognise and respond to vulnerability and to take into account the effect of abuse-related trauma on the ability of witnesses and parties to give evidence before the court, and the quality of the evidence likely to be received. I would go a little further than the amendment and require that, before any circuit or district judge sits to hear a family case, they must have completed mandatory training in domestic abuse, as arranged pursuant to the amendment.

I regard the training Amendment 133 as more likely to be effective than Amendment 134, which would require the court to consider the vulnerability of victims of domestic abuse, who are witnesses and parties to proceedings, and the impact of trauma on the quality of the evidence that they give. This is in tune with the objects of the Bill and no one could disagree with the motivation behind it but, generally in domestic abuse cases, judges try to consider the vulnerability of witnesses and parties, and the effect of trauma. Many, even most, succeed in so doing. I hope that the view I have just expressed does not reflect complacency. It reflects the general view that judges are trying to do justice, with regard to vulnerability, sensitivity and the circumstances of particular cases. Such judges benefit enormously from training but, for them, I expect the amendment is unnecessary.

Secondly, if judges fail properly to consider vulnerability and the impact on evidence from the trauma of abuse, that stems from a lack of understanding or training to which the training amendment is directed. It cannot be properly addressed by a bare statutory requirement imposed on judges to consider these matters.

Finally—and I hope I will be forgiven some cynicism—there is the problem well known to lawyers that, if a statute requires a judge to consider two or more factors, call them A and B, the judgments of the less good judges will always state, boldly but sadly inaccurately, “I have fully considered factor A and factor B. In the circumstances, I have concluded”, and the conclusion follows, however flawed it may be, in its unappealable compliance with the statute, which is matched only by its lamentable lack of understanding.

I agree with the principle of Amendment 135 on the transparency of court arrangements, which is that every litigant who is unhappy with the result of a court hearing should leave court with full information about the appeal process. However, I do not believe that that should go into the judge’s ruling. Often, although not always, rulings in family cases are given in oral judgments delivered at the end of hearing the case. They are very important in setting out the judge’s reasoning, particularly for the Court of Appeal, but also for the parties. I have never been completely confident that the parties, who are generally shell-shocked by the proceedings, listen to every word that the judge says.

It should be incumbent on the court administration to ensure that a document setting out the appeal process, in clear terms, is given to every party and possibly others who want it, on departure from court at the end of the day. It should contain details for the court and a helpline equipped to assist with the relevant information. As the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, said in his introduction, this is a probing amendment and it could easily be met by ensuring that this information is available through administrative functions in the court.

Amendment 136, the final amendment in this long and diverse group, would impose an absolute rule on costs of contact. I find this difficult because it appears to be a provision dealing with extraneous financial matters in the context of contact, and that is something that the courts try not to do. I cannot see, for example, why a court that decided that contact between a parent and child was appropriate in the particular circumstances of a given case should be forbidden in some circumstances, though they may be rare, from directing that the other parent pay for or contribute to the cost of arrangements for that contact on the sole ground that the other parent has made an allegation of domestic abuse, or even on the ground that the parent with whom the child is to have contact has in fact been found guilty of domestic abuse.