Bob Neill – 2020 Speech on the Domestic Abuse Bill

Below is the text of the speech made by Bob Neill, the Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, in the House of Commons on 28 April 2020.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), and to see the Lord Chancellor be supported, albeit at some distance on the Front Bench, by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk), who is the Minister responsible for the Ministry of Justice victims strategy. He is a former member of the Justice Committee, and we are delighted to see him on the Treasury Bench.

This is an important Bill that deals with a real and pressing social evil. The Lord Chancellor was right to bring it forward as swiftly as he has, and I welcome the tone of his remarks. May I concentrate in particular on the provisions that relate to legal proceedings and court procedures, starting with part 5? The prohibition on cross-examination by litigants in person in family cases is to be welcomed as a very important advance. It is something for which lawyers and the judiciary involved in family cases have been calling for a considerable time, and it is good to see it in the Bill. What I hope that Ministers will take away is the detail of how we actually make that work in practice.

The first point that I hope the Government will take on board is that those advocates who are appointed to carry out that often sensitive and difficult cross-examination in often very sensitive and fraught cases must be properly remunerated in order to be prepared for that work. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor ​will know, one of the first things that we were taught at Bar school was that the key to good cross-examination is preparation. To do that, the lawyers have to be appointed in a timely fashion. They must be paid properly to ensure that they are of adequate experience and seniority to deal with these matters, and they must have time to access the material and be rewarded for doing so.

One issue in the family jurisdiction is that there is not the extent of disclosure that we see in criminal cases and therefore preparatory work may be harder in those cases. Perhaps we need to look therefore at what stage those advocates are appointed to carry out that work. It seems to me that, in order to have the ability to cross-examine properly, it may well be necessary for them to be able to read all of the papers in the case. They probably also need the ability to seek a conference in order to get from the person on whose behalf they are appointed the necessary detail to do justice in the case. That cannot be done on the cheap. I am sure the Government will not want to do that, but it is important that that is not missed out, as both the Bar Council and the Law Society have pointed out. It may also be important, as the professional bodies have pointed out, to consider extending that to instructions to carry out examination-in-chief as well. The example that is given is where an alleged perpetrator of abuse seeks to call a child in the family as a relevant witness to some of the proceedings before the court. It seems to me that the same risks of intimidation would be transferred under those circumstances.

It is also important to consider the nature of the proceedings. It may well be that the allegation of abuse relates to one part of the family proceedings, but the coercive behaviour would have an impact on that perpetrator cross-examining the victim under any part of the proceedings. If someone has a history of coercive control over another, it would be just as difficult for the victim to be cross-examined by them about financial provisions as it would in relation to the actual incidents of assault and abuse, or in relation to custody. I hope that we will be generous in carrying out the legal support that is made available. I hope, too, that we will recognise the need to use the review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 to look at the re-introduction, as soon as possible, of early legal advice in these matters, so that the necessary issues are flagged up at the earliest opportunity.

I am glad to see that the Lord Chancellor is proposing to bring forward the report of the specialist panel. I hope that he will do that as soon as possible, not least because there has been concern that provision around special measures has never been as consistent or as advanced in the family jurisdiction as it has been in criminal courts. That is not because I think family practitioners and judges do not want it, but because the infrastructure has not been there. I hope that that will give us an opportunity to address that.

I am pleased that the Lord Chancellor is proposing to pilot the domestic abuse protection orders and prevention notices rather than going in immediately. We do need to see how those will integrate— [time limit of speech reached]