28 FEB 2018

Mixed reactions to Government proposals to protect domestic abuse victims

Mixed reactions to Government proposals to protect domestic abuse victims
The announcement by Home Secretary Amber Rudd of plans to increase use of screens and video links in court for victims of domestic violence, to spare them the trauma of facing their perpetrators, has raised conflicting responses from practitioners. Use of these protective measures, currently available to victims of rape and modern slavery, could be extended in the Domestic Abuse Bill currently being drafted.

The move, which will be a key subject in a public consultation, is a bid to encourage victims of domestic violence to come forward and increase convictions for a crime which affects 1.2 million women and 713,000 men a year.

Some practitioners are welcoming it as a ‘positive step’ while others see it as a frustrating ‘publicity stunt’ which fails to address the issue of perpetrators cross-examining victims in court. Article continues below...

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Anthony Burton, criminal law specialist and partner at Simons Muirhead and Burton LLP, says that ‘providing an automatic right for victims of domestic abuse to give evidence unseen by their abuser’ is a ‘positive step’ because it ‘brings the law in line with victims of sexual offences’.

Burton believes that relieving victims of the pressure of facing their persecutors will embolden them to give evidence in court, and make them feel ‘less fearful’, which aligns with Rudd’s hope of an increase in prosecutions in the future.

Kate Goold, partner of crime, fraud and regulatory at Bindmans LLP argues that the measures announced by Rudd are ‘widely used in criminal courts’ and accuses the Government of ‘tinkering with legislation that already exists’ instead of giving funding to legal aid charities to support individuals in domestic violence cases.

Alleged domestic abusers and victims increasingly represent themselves in court, due to ‘vicious and unprecedented cuts to the legal aid budget’, which Goold says lead to direct confrontations in court between the defendant and plaintiff:

'Defendants who represent themselves may directly cross-examine their victims, while unrepresented victims are given no option but to confront their abuser in court. This is often a very traumatic experience for the victim, however the Prison and Courts Bill 2016/7 which sought to ban the action in the family court fell through due to the 2017 snap general election.'
Goold concludes that the Government’s announcement is ‘wholly hypocritical and a publicity stunt to suggest they are doing something to address the problem when they have actively making cuts to exacerbate it’.

Funding for quality representation, Goold says, is where victims of domestic violence will feel supported by the law.
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