Imagine being routinely raped, and beaten unconscious by your partner - and then finding yourself being interrogated by them in court.
This alarming trend, which forces victims of domestic violence in England and Wales to face their attackers in court, has come about because of legal aid cuts, and a lack of legislation in this area. But there are existing measures in place, so why aren't we using them?
Whilst it is illegal for alleged perpetrators of abuse to question alleged victims in the criminal courts, it is not yet illegal in our family courts. Calls to change the law in this area have been made, and the government has now promised to implement legislation to ban the practice.
In a debate in the House of Commons on Monday, Peter Kyle MP shared some stories from victims who had come forward to share their court experiences. Many of the women had been cross examined by convicted rapists; some by partners who had hospitalised them; and one woman needed several weeks' medication and counselling to recover from being questioned in court by her abuser.
Perhaps just as shocking is that whilst legislation does not yet exist to make this conduct illegal, the family courts do have the power to stop it.
Guidelines dealing with this issue currently exist - Practice Direction 12J makes specific provisions for situations in which a victim of abuse might find themselves being cross examined by their abuser in the family courts. It tells us that where this is likely to happen, a judge should step in and prevent the cross examination. And yet, few judges seem to be. victims are being re-traumatised by the practice, and the damage this is doing to them, and the children involved in these cases, is significant.
Domestic abuse creates a severe risk of mental health problems amongst women. It is often difficult to assess the extent of this problem due to the stigma attached to domestic abuse. Many victims fear being judged by health professionals or even blamed for the abuse, leaving a large portion of women affected, undetected and at further risk of harm. Research tells us that 40% of women with severe mental illness who come forward are victims of domestic abuse, but we also know that domestic abuse itself can be a trigger for mental illness, often causing PTSD, depression and anxiety in victims.
And though unintended, cross examination by perpetrators of emotional and physical violence becomes a form of abuse which allows aggressors to exert control over their victims and prolong the abuse.
Having to see your attacker in the same room as you, questioning you in an antagonistic way, because our justice system is designed to be adversarial, must be one of the most frightening things any of us can experience.
This fear and anxiety deeply affects the victim, but what about the knock on effect to children involved?
Abuse impacts children not just in the way it affects their emotional development and wellbeing but it also affects their day to day care. Parents who have been deeply traumatised by abuse may turn to alcohol or drugs in order to deal with the pain. Once a parent becomes dependant on a substance, a child then loses his or her carer. Ongoing abuse can also trigger clinical depression, and a child may find that their parent can no longer look after them, and so they end up in state care. The family courts are keen to avoid removing children from their families, but this latest phenomenon allowing abusers unrestricted access to their victims could be making things worse. A victim in recovery at the time of the hearing could suffer a relapse after being cross examined, or could just fall apart under the pressure and find themselves unable to parent, leaving their child at risk of removal. It is a vicious cycle which the Family Court must stop, now.
Plans to change the law are wonderful and welcome, but drafting and passing legislation takes time. The Family Court could help victims of abuse today just by ensuring that every Family Court and judge knows about Practice Direction 12J and uses it every time a vulnerable partner or parent risks being cross examined by an abuser.Suggest a correction