The very first person who turned to me for help when I became an MP was a woman who had just fled her abusive relationship and felt that she had nowhere else to turn. Since becoming an MP in 2015 I have had the chance to meet, support, and listen to too many people who have endured unimaginable horror within their own home and each one rocks me to my core. It is mostly, but not always women that I have met and who have suffered.
There was one aspect of abuse that surprised me the most and it was one that I had no previous knowledge of. This is how the family courts are being used by convicted rapists and abusers to continue their brutalisation of extremely vulnerable women. In criminal courts, people convicted of a crime cannot represent themselves and cannot cross examine their victims. This is for very obvious reasons. But in the family court this is not the case. They can, and it is an unvarnished and unrelenting nightmare for all those who have to suffer it.
What is worse, due to the almost total cuts to legal aid, more and more abuse survivors have no choice but to defend themselves without any representation at all. I am angry to the point of fury about this, and I’m ashamed that I spent so long not knowing this was happening within our own legal system.
That said, three years ago we scored a rare and wonderful victory. Back in September 2016 I co-sponsored a Commons debate on domestic abuse where I raised this issue. After that, I began working with the fantastic Guardian Journalist Sandra Laville to uncover the full horror of what was happening. My team in Hove, including Stella who leads on our casework, were also very involved so we could fully expose what was happening in family courts.
The result was a series of Guardian front page stories over Christmas that year, which informed the public for the first time the impact that this terrible problem was having on abuse survivors. Incidentally this affects men and women in same sex unions too. The Government, as they do, panicked in the face of this publicity and an ‘anonymous source’ said that the minister would do something.
So, I wrote to Speaker Bercow and asked him to grant me an ‘Urgent Question’ – this is where an MP can summons a minister to the commons to answer an Urgent and pressing issue. I was over the moon that my question was granted, and amazingly, by the end of the session the government had agreed that cross examination of victims by their abusers would be ended. They agreed to a review and promised they would introduce primary legislation to outlaw the practice. In short, they promised to change the law and make life better for those who need it most.
Tragically, though, the Government haven’t kept this promise. We are now three years on and survivors are still suffering. Minister after minister has promised “immediate” change, and in Parliament I’ve asked a simple question time and time again – when?
The Domestic Abuse Bill, introduced in July this year, offered hope that finally that change would happen, and victims, charities and campaigners worked incredibly hard to make sure that a ban on cross-examination would be included, alongside a raft of other important measures to better protect victims. The Bill had rare cross-party support and was set to become law. But then Government suspended parliament, unlawfully, which jeopardised the vital Bill. I will never let this drop, and I urged Ministers to make a commitment to carry the Bill over to the next Parliamentary session and finally make the change survivors have been waiting so long for – you can read my speech here: https://www.brightonandhovenews.org/2019/10/03/hove-mp-pushes-ministers-on-bill-to-protect-domestic-abuse-victims/.
The horrific family court experiences endured by abuse survivors that I’ve met will haunt me forever, and I cannot imagine the damage it’s done to those who’ve suffered it. I simply won’t let them be forgotten. Government must ensure this Bill becomes law immediately, and I won’t relent until it’s done.
Here are some links about my work on this which you might find interesting:
- Government must finally act to end abuse in family courts: https://www.brightonandhoveindependent.co.uk/news/politics/hove-mp-government-must-finally-act-to-end-abuse-in-family-courts-1-9077234
- My Urgent Question: https://www.parliament.uk/business/news/2017/january/urgent-question-on-perpetrators-of-domestic-violence-cross-examining-their-victims/
- My questions in Parliament: https://www.theyworkforyou.com/search/?q=family+court&pid=25418