A week in family law: Domestic abuse, court modernisation, and more

Family Law|March 8th 2019

As I explained here, the Ministry of Justice (‘MoJ’) has announced that it has awarded a grant of just under £900,000 to two organisations to provide in-court support to domestic abuse victims: the Personal Support Unit (‘PSU’) and the Citizens Advice Witness Service. As the MoJ explain, the PSU has been supporting litigants in person in family courts since 2001, and Citizens Advice has been supporting witnesses in criminal court proceedings since 2015. Both have “extensive front-line experience of helping victims and witnesses navigate court processes and feel safe at court.” We are told that Citizens Advice will be using the funding to extend their current Witness Service to selected family courts to provide information and practical and emotional support to victims before, during and after the day of the hearing, and that the PSU will be using the funding to invest in further training of their staff and volunteers and to share learnings on best practice with a range of family justice stakeholders. The funding runs from January 2019 through to 31 March 2020, and will allow Citizens Advice to provide these services in up to 12 family courts across England and the PSU in 24 courts across England and Wales.

An application by James Bulger’s father and uncle to vary the anonymity injunction in relation to the person formally known as Jon Venables has been refused by the High Court. Venables and Robert Thompson, who were both 10 at the time, killed James in 1993, and were subsequently convicted of his murder. The application was made after Venables was jailed in 2017 for possessing child abuse images. It sought the removal of certain categories of information that are subject to the injunction, including any names used by Venables, and information relating to his whereabouts and activities, prior to his being jailed. James’ father and uncle claimed, amongst other things, that the safety of the public dictated that people have a right to know that an individual such as Venables, who presents a risk to safety, has been living in a particular locality. However, President of the Family Division Sir Andrew McFarlane refused to change the terms of the injunction, which he said was designed to protect the “uniquely notorious” Venables from “being put to death”. He said: “There is a strong possibility, if not a probability, that if his identity were known he would be pursued resulting in grave and possibly fatal consequences.” You can read the President’s full judgment here.

The Home Office has published a ‘position statement’ on male victims of crimes considered in its ending violence against women and girls (‘VAWG’) strategy. The statement sets out twelve commitments to assist victims and survivors to receive support, encourage more people to come forward and seek help, and bring perpetrators to justice. The measures include giving £500,000 to specialist organisations that support male victims and survivors of domestic abuse, and awarding £500,000 to specialist LGBT domestic abuse organisations to improve inter-agency support for LGBT victims and survivors; raise awareness within LGBT communities to increase reporting; and improve monitoring and recording practices. Victoria Atkins, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability, said: “Men can, and do, suffer from crimes such as domestic and sexual abuse. It is a horrendous experience that often goes unrecognised and it is heart-breaking that some men feel they cannot report their experiences because of societal views around masculinity. As a government we are determined to bring these horrific crimes to light and support victims and survivors, regardless of gender.” You can read the position statement here.

And finally, in a piece of completely unsurprising news HM Courts and Tribunals Service (‘HMCTS’) has announced that it is extending its court modernisation programme by a year. The programme will not now be completed until 2023. The programme has been beset by difficulties and criticisms, and has already been extended once before, from four to six years. Last July the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee published a damning report on the programme. The Chair of the Committee, Meg Hillier MP, commented: “Government has cut corners in its rush to push through these reforms. The timetable was unrealistic, consultation has been inadequate and, even now, HMCTS has not clearly explained what the changes will mean in practice.” Sighs…

Have a good weekend.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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