Domestic abuse victims call for family courts overhaul

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Media caption'Family court made me feel more vulnerable'

Victims of domestic abuse are calling for a radical overhaul of family courts, claiming intimidation and abuse continue during proceedings.

The UK government has recently consulted on a new domestic abuse bill, which would ban abusers cross-examining their victims in family courts.

But Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville-Roberts urged ministers to speed up changes.

Campaigners also said cuts to legal aid had left families suffering huge financial pressure.

Unlike most other court cases, proceedings in family court are held in private, to protect those involved and their children.

Women's Aid said 70% of cases involve domestic abuse, with many victims unable to afford legal representation.

The BBC Wales Live programme has spoken to victims of domestic abuse, who are critical of the system. Their names have been changed to protect them from further harm.

Jane's ex-partner was convicted of assault and she has a restraining order against him, but she still had to face him in the family court for custody hearings, when his child asked to live with her.

'Begged and borrowed'

"We went to court probably 20 times over about two years and it had nothing to do with anything else but his control," she said.

Proceedings took so long that she could no longer afford a lawyer and had to represent herself.

"I got a second job in order to put food on the table and to pay for bills. I sold jewellery," she added.

"I downgraded my car. I stopped all unnecessary direct debits. I begged, I borrowed and even at one stage I went cap in hand to the food bank."

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Image caption Some 70% of cases at family courts involve domestic abuse, a charity says

Cuts were made to legal aid in 2012, affecting nearly all cases in family and civil courts.

Since 2011 the number of domestic violence cases in family courts has risen by 17%, with the cases granted legal aid falling by 28%.

Sophie Hansen, who is from the Survivors Empowered group, is calling for an overhaul of the family courts.

"We've heard from a number of survivors who've gone as far as to quit their jobs to qualify for legal aid so they can represent their children properly in family court," she said.

"There shouldn't be a financial cost to safeguarding your children from harm."

'Waiting years'

The Ministry of Justice said measures had been set out to better protect victims and changes have been brought in to make it easier to obtain legal aid.

"We will legislate to ban the unacceptable practice of abusers cross-examining their victims in the family court as soon as possible," a spokesman said.

"The law is clear that the child's welfare is paramount, and it is for judges to determine what is best for the child after careful consideration of the facts in each case."

Ms Saville-Roberts said the changes had already been delayed and she was concerned legislation linked to Brexit may add to that.

"I can only urge them (the UK government) to bring this legislation forward because we've been waiting years for this," she added.

"There's a general agreement that the way the victims are treated in the family and civil courts is inappropriately different to how they are treated in the criminal courts."

Wales Live is on at 22:30 BST on Wednesday on BBC One Wales.

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