Christina Rees Shadow Minister (Justice):
I thank my hon. Friend Peter Kyle for asking the urgent question and the Minister for his response. I recognise that this issue unites the House.
The practice of unrepresented parties against whom domestic violence is either proved or alleged questioning victims in court has been raised repeatedly in the House and in the media. Many Members on both sides of the House have constituents who have been left devastated by the experience. That the Government are doing something to end that practice is welcome, but there is a clear admission that their legal aid cuts have caused this situation. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 removed much family law from eligibility. Victims of domestic violence struggle to provide evidence of their abuse because they are frequently not believed, and in some cases because medical evidence is difficult to obtain. Their experience is made worse still because their abuser, who is also unable to get representation, is allowed to question them, even when they would be prevented from contacting the person in any other situation. The abuse therefore continues.
It need not be that way. In the criminal courts, cross-examination by an unrepresented party accused of domestic violence is not allowed. Is the Ministry of Justice counting the number of litigants in person in the family courts? How many of those are victims of domestic violence? How many are convicted or alleged to have committed domestic violence? Will the Minister look at the practice in criminal courts? Along with prohibiting cross-examination, will he introduce the greater use of more sensitive procedures? When will the LASPO review finally begin?
Oliver Heald The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice:
On the hon. Lady’s final point, as she knows, the LASPO review has to be concluded by April 2018. It is not overdue, but it is something that the Government have very much in mind, and that we will have to start fairly shortly.
On the hon. Lady’s other points, legal aid is available in cases of domestic abuse. That is why the Government concentrated efforts in legal aid on situations where life or liberty are at stake, and on domestic abuse and housing when homes are at risk. That is not an issue, but I accept that the evidence criteria are important. That is why the Government have allowed a longer period and a wider range of evidence to be used, which has been welcomed.
Cross-examination by litigants in person takes place too much. The hon. Lady asked what the exact number is. It is not clear, but it is certainly a considerable number, which is why the Government consider this to be an important issue to tackle.