Victims and Prisoners Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Lord Hampton Portrait Lord Hampton (CB)
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My Lords, I will speak briefly to my Amendments 103 and 103A, which the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, has already talked about. I am grateful for the support of the noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede and Lord Russell of Liverpool.

These amendments would simply add the Children’s Commissioner as a statutory consultee for the codes of practice alongside the Information Commissioner, the Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses and the domestic abuse commissioner. The Minister might well say that this is covered by the phrase

“such other persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate”.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, pointed out proudly earlier in our debates that children are mentioned in the Bill three times; this is an opportunity to add them two more times, making five in all. By simply adding the Children’s Commissioner to the list of names in the Bill, the Government can, with no effort or watering down, show the importance of children as victims. I look forward to the Minister’s answer.

Baroness Newlove Portrait Baroness Newlove (Con)
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My Lords, I support most of the amendments in this group, which is quite lengthy. One of my key priorities for the Bill is that it delivers greater safeguards to protect the privacy of victims of sexual violence. That is why I am speaking in support of these valuable amendments.

The Government’s rape review was in response to the concern at collapsing charging and prosecution numbers. The review found that most victims did not see a charge or reach court, and one in two victims withdrew from the rape investigations. Privacy concerns led many to withdraw. It had become standard practice for victims who reported to the police to be asked to hand over large quantities of private information. This included digital data from mobile phones, but also what is known as “third-party materials”—personal information about an individual held by organisations.

“Third-party materials” is a seemingly innocuous phrase, but it belies a greater meaning and significance. In reality, it means education records, medical files, social services records or therapy notes. These can all be requested as part of an investigation—an investigation that focuses on the victim, not the accused. I quote one sexual violence survivor:

“I felt anxious, confused and infuriated. I was under far deeper investigation than the rapist (who I have no doubt would have had questionable material had they searched the same). They had refused to take physical evidence—my clothing from the night of the attack—but wanted to investigate my private life. I asked them to justify each request but they could not, so I did not provide it”.

This material often includes documents that the victim may have never seen. These can be introduced at court and used to attack the victim. As one victim told me:

“I had good support for the criminal court. Good preparation. But it made me angry. I was made out to be a liar and it made me feel low. That came as a surprise—it was dreadful. I wasn’t expecting it. Afterwards I was very upset and couldn’t control myself. I started having dreams and flash backs. I was asked about things in my records that I knew nothing about—my past and I didn’t know why”.

In effect, victims are being forced to choose between seeking justice and their right to a private life. That is not a choice; that is an ultimatum. The Government made reassuring noises when they announced an amendment to the Bill over the summer. They promised better protection for rape victims from invasive record requests, but I am concerned that their proposals do not offer the level of protection that we are calling for or that victims need. We need provisions that will offer the protection required. For this reason I am in full support of Amendments 101, 102 and 173, tabled by my noble friend Lady Morgan, which my noble friend Lady Finn eloquently addressed today.

Some noble Lords may recognise these provisions: my predecessor as Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, secured similar amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. These were designed to protect rape victims from overintrusive and excessive police requests for personal mobile data downloads. This amendment not only provides greater support for victims but provides police with a consistent approach to handling requests for digital material and third-party material. Their job is difficult enough as it is, without lawmakers adding to the complexity of their work by placing two very different processes and criteria side by side.

I am also pleased to support Amendments 78 and 79, which call for free legal representation for victims of rape and sexual assault to ensure that their privacy is also protected. Requests for information are often a clear violation of our human right to privacy—our Article 8 rights, to use the legal jargon. My predecessor argued that there should be a right in law for victims to be given free legal representation where these rights are threatened. I wholeheartedly and absolutely agree. Put simply, a lawyer advises and makes representations on the victims’ behalf, cooling police requests for data and improving victim confidence in proceedings. In their rape review, the Government committed to consider a pilot, and I will push hard to get this up and running.

I also support Amendment 115, which if enacted would enable rape victims to seek therapy to help them cope and recover. I am always concerned when I meet victims of rape who tell me they have declined to seek counselling. They are rightly told that notes from counselling sessions might be disclosed to the court. Worse, they might be disclosed to the defendant: intimate, personal details shared with their abuser. That cannot be right. As a result, many victims will wait until the trial is complete before seeking therapy. This can mean years without support, suffering alone and in torment. Some may take their life. It is no surprise that many withdraw so they can access counselling sooner. That is no good for the victim, no good for justice and no good for society.

Currently, notes are routinely requested and can end up being the subject of cross-examination at court. As one survivor said when appearing on “Newsnight”:

“The defence said ‘Are you truthful?’ and when I said yes, she said—‘Well, you’re not exactly truthful with your husband are you? Would you like me to read your therapy notes out about what you’re currently discussing with your therapist?’ I said no. It was like a physical punch because I wasn’t expecting it. That someone would bring that up in a courtroom, about my current sex life. How, how is that relevant? It was violating—like another trauma”.

That is why I want to see records of therapy and counselling received by victims of sexual violence made subject to a form of privilege that would make them exempt from disclosure. It would not be an absolute privilege: judges could waive it if they considered a substantial value to the notes being disclosed. It is a model that balances the defendant’s right to a fair trial with a victim’s right to access counselling. We know it works. As my noble friend mentioned, it has been in place for many years in Australia, where the criminal justice system is comparable to ours. It is about a fairer model, and that is what the Bill needs to deliver: a level playing field for victims.

I also support Amendment 106. Like many others in this Committee, no doubt, I was appalled to hear that malicious individuals are weaponising legislation designed and put in place to protect vulnerable children. As we have already heard, if an individual makes a malicious complaint about someone to the police, the police can act to remove that record.

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Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I recognise the seriousness of the issue. I have no advice in my brief on that, but I will be happy to write to the noble Lord on that point.

Baroness Newlove Portrait Baroness Newlove (Con)
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My Lords, it is exactly as the noble Lord, Lord Marks, said. He put it so succinctly, more so than I did—I would go on, because I am so passionate about this.

I have admiration for the noble Earl. What worries me in all this legislation is that it is so simple to say, but when it is enacted on a traumatised rape victim, it is not as simple as joining the dots. I am up for having further conversations, but this is for the professionals. While we can stand here and say this, I am still going through the criminal justice system, and believe you me: I could write another book on how it does not do a service to victims—and I am in the position that I am in, as is the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton; it does not follow.

For rape victims, it is really hard-hitting when they are going to a SARC centre to be forensically examined, and they are talking to individual people. While we want to have trust and faith in our police officers, the police are so not like what we will have in statutory guidance. Also, what do we class as reasonable? Everybody within our criminal justice system has a different definition. It should not be for the victim to think, “What is reasonable?”, when they just want to do what is best.

I really want this to work, but I wish we could be cautious and understand that the people we are talking about are traumatised. They may have been raped not once or twice: it could have been in their home. Everything is intrusive, and it is down to the victim to have a voice to go forward. I wish we could get that in the guidance and the legislation, because it is their lives that we are speaking about and it is their lives that we need to put back on a level playing field.

Baroness Bertin Portrait Baroness Bertin (Con)
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My Lords, I will also come in on this. I have huge respect for the noble Earl, and I have huge respect for the police, but I am afraid I cannot accept the idea that all 43 police forces and all chief constables will look at, understand and know the code of conduct, and that this will somehow be better than a judge saying that something is right or wrong when it comes to releasing therapeutic records. I would certainly like to meet him and others about this, ahead of Report.

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Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I hear what my noble friend has said. I was able to give what I hoped was helpful information in our debate on Monday about police training, but it is by no means an overnight process, as I am the first to acknowledge. Still, work is under way, and it is surely an important ingredient in the mix.

We think that the Law Commission is best placed to conduct a holistic review of the existing system and to make recommendations for improvement where necessary, and the Government are most reluctant to make changes at this stage that could pre-empt the outcome of its review. However, we can all look forward to closely reviewing and responding to its findings and recommendations when they are published later in the year.

Before I turn to Amendment 173, I shall address the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, about victims with limited mental capacity. There are general points in the code about enhanced rights if the victim’s quality of evidence is likely to be affected because of a mental disorder. They may be supported by a registered intermediary if a mental disorder affects their ability to communicate. Some communications under the code might be done with a nominated family spokesperson if the victim’s mental impairment means that they are unable to communicate or lack the capacity to do so.

The Law Commission is looking at the impact of rape myths on people with disabilities or mental health conditions and how the current legislation and practice of the use of intermediaries is working in respect of complainants in sexual offence cases with disabilities and disorders.

Baroness Newlove Portrait Baroness Newlove (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful for that response to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. I did a report on registered intermediaries. Again, I mean no disrespect to the Minister, because this is a very passionate area that we are speaking about, but we have a shortage of registered intermediaries, and they are the ones who train the police to get the best evidence.

I am concerned about people with autism or special needs, and even victims who have nothing apart from their trauma. My concern is that there is a shortage of registered intermediaries, and the reason is that they were not getting paid to do the job. I ask the Minister to write to me to see where we are on that position. While he has given a copy-and-paste response, in a sense, it does not help to fix the problem for people with special needs.

I have met a couple of victims of rape who were disabled. They thought they were raped because they were disabled, but it has never left me that when they went through the court trial they found that those people were on the web and looking at disabled people. It was not because that victim was disabled. So I am concerned. The Minister does not have to answer now, but I ask him to write to me about where we are on registered intermediaries after that report six or seven years ago.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I would be happy to write to my noble friend.

Amendment 173 seeks to extend Clause 24 to the whole of the UK. At the moment these measures apply to England and Wales, on the basis that policing is a devolved matter. This aligns with the territorial extent of the majority of measures within the Bill. We have also taken the decision to limit the scope to England and Wales as, following engagement with the devolved Governments, it is clear that there is no appetite at present for these provisions to extend further.

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Baroness Brinton Portrait Baroness Brinton (LD)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to sign all the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, in this group. I will not go through the detail of them, but I want to make a couple of comments about Jade’s law and parental alienation to set in context why all the amendments are necessary. They certainly try to remedy the poor behaviour of ex-partners especially, but not only those, who are offenders through the criminal courts system. As we have heard through the passage of the Bill, we are talking about the most manipulative and vindictive people, who will continue to do everything they can to persecute their ex-partner or, I am afraid, sometimes their current partner.

The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, referred to the report from the Ministry of Justice’s harm panel published in 2020. It found evidence that through the family court system abusers were exercising

“continued control through repeat litigation and the threat of repeat litigation”.

Its recommendations outline comprehensive changes to the system to stop this happening using a whole series of mechanisms.

Among other things, the panel recommended that the basic design principles for private law children’s proceedings should be set out in the way it described and which I will not go into. Much more importantly, it seems to be safety focused and trauma aware. The problem with the offenders we are talking about is that those children are already traumatised.

Although the report was principally about children, it talks about parents in private law cases as well. One problem faced in family courts is the increasing number of litigants in person. It is not even a counsel representing one of the parents; it is the estranged partner, who may have a criminal record for their behaviour, cross-examining their ex and other witnesses. That is just not appropriate. I know the law has changed on that, but that is the context in which the report was written.

The Minister referred in a previous group to the importance of training, and indeed we have had amendments on that. Recommendation 11.11 by the harm panel echoed amendments that your Lordships’ House has seen in recent years, on training in the family justice system to cover a

“cultural change programme to introduce and embed reforms”.

It then goes through a whole string of items which I will not mention, but it specifically mentions the problems of parental alienation.

Prior to that report, it was very difficult to get the family courts even to accept that there was such a thing as parental alienation—the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, has nodded at me. The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 certainly made some improvements, but unfortunately the reason for these amendments is that there are too many holes in the current system that mean that victims going through private family law proceedings can be inappropriately assessed by experts, with some inappropriately concluding that victims’ allegations, including those made by children, are evidence that the victim parent is “alienating” the other.

The victim parent often cannot get the family court to consider the previous criminal behaviour of their former partner or even a caution—I suppose that technically counts as criminal. The point is that—and we have debated this a lot in your Lordships’ House—the family court rightly prides itself on being a stand-alone court system, but in this instance the behaviour that was found through the criminal system is now replicated in the family court system; it is not everywhere but it happens. Family courts need to recognise that and take it into account.

There is recognition now of what is called the “parental alienation trap” in academic research both here and in America. Basically, it means that victims are accused of alienation. Not only does that compound the trauma from the abuse but that trauma is then used as evidence that the mother or child—and it usually is a mother—is disordered and therefore an alienator. That is a trap that you cannot get out of in a court, because whatever you do is wrong.

A further problem is that some parents who are calling their former partners disordered can now get specialist advisers who believe in parental alienation. One bit of evidence from the Victims’ Commissioner for London was a quote from a victim of the family courts:

“The therapist recommended a 90 day plan for my son to spend time with his Dad with no contact with me. She wrote in her report that there was a need to ‘sever the bond between mother and child’. The ‘experts’ then had free rein granted by the judge to force me and my son through privately paid therapy every week at £150 per hour. The therapists and social worker told me if I didn’t, they wouldn’t give me my son back. They wanted to take him away at the end of 90 days and give full custody to my ex but my ex refused as he said ‘I had learnt my lesson and he had a life and didn’t want my son all the time’. I was one of the lucky ones. I had to fight this case for over 2.5 years and it cost me a total of just under £900,000”.

People who have access to resources are using their money to manipulate the family court system even more.

It is also extraordinary that it is possible for those on bail or awaiting trial for domestic or child sexual abuse offences to have unsupervised contact with their children. Amendment 111 would prevent this. For similar reasons, victims of domestic abuse need protecting from disclosure of their personal and private medical records, as we discussed in the previous group. I will not repeat the arguments, but they are as strong here, particularly where the litigant in person will see those details in all their glory.

While we welcome the Government’s amendment to Clause 16 in the Commons to take account of Jade’s law, it does not go far enough to protect children, particularly children who have been abused by a parent—unbelievably, they retain the right to parental responsibility above the safeguarding of a child. Amendments 84 to 100 on Jade’s law also cover the issue that happened with Jane Clough, who was murdered by her ex-partner. I had the privilege through the stalking law inquiry in 2011-12 to meet Jane’s parents, John and Penny Clough. Ever since their daughter’s murder, they have campaigned tirelessly for legislation to protect victims and their children from their violent and murdering partners and ex-partners.

It is really important that these lacunae in the family court system are closed. We need to make sure that children, whom the family courts stand there to protect, are the absolute priority and that every bit of evidence from the criminal court system or other systems, through repeated litigation through the family courts, is taken into account.

Baroness Newlove Portrait Baroness Newlove (Con)
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My Lords, I support all these amendments. As Victims’ Commissioner, I have been in contact with many victims who have experienced criminal offending and are going through the family courts. I have raised concerns about how, as I hear from victims of domestic abuse in particular, the family courts can be a highly traumatising environment. Anecdotally, from someone who has worked in family law, I hear that you have only to go into the family courts to see how private they are. You cannot even walk freely. The barristers take over and you go before the judges. It is very clinical at an emotional time.

I was pleased when this was acknowledged by the Government, which resulted in the harms panel report, as has been discussed. I was also pleased that the Government legislated through the Domestic Abuse Act, in which I was heavily involved, to prevent perpetrators of domestic abuse cross-examining their victim in family court proceedings. However, we still have issues within the family courts for victims of abuse. As has been said, parental alienation has been increasingly argued in the family courts and even on social media when you speak out about it. It is interesting that we are talking about it in this Chamber to protect those victims. I am aware of cases where it has been used by an abuser to discredit their victim in child custody hearings. I was also shocked to discover that so-called experts in these cases are not always qualified or regulated to provide such opinions, and yet weight is frequently given to the evidence in court.

As we have just heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, abusers will often try to paint the abused parent as unfit in other ways, sometimes relying on medical records which detail evidence of the mental effects of trauma that they have caused. In fact, I would like to see that put down to coercive control by the abuser, rather than the victim having problems. We have to back up these claims for mental instability. It cannot be right that an abuser can go into a family court and use it as a tool of abuse. Therefore, I am wholly supportive of the measures to reduce the opportunity for an abuser to make false claims about their victim, and which seek to ensure that only qualified experts give evidence which is considered by the family courts making these difficult decisions.

I urge the Government to support Amendments 110 and 117. Although it is relatively rare, thankfully, we know that children die at the hands of an abusive parent during unsupervised contact, where abuse is a factor in the marriage breakdown. Research conducted by Women’s Aid considered the deaths of 19 children in such circumstances in a 10-year period—even one such death is too many and no children should be at risk in this way.

I urge the Government to support Amendment 111, which seeks to prohibit unsupervised contact for a parent awaiting trial, or on bail for domestic abuse, sexual violence or child abuse-related offences. The Government first proposed legislating to create Jade’s law after campaigning by the family of Jade Ward, who was killed by her former partner. This law seeks to, in effect, remove the parental rights of someone who kills their child’s other parent—a move I welcome. However, it does raise concerns about what it means for women who kill an abusive partner. Are we really saying that they should automatically lose their parental rights, as well as being imprisoned? I am in favour of measures which seek to mitigate the effect of Jade’s law in such circumstances being included in legislation. I therefore ask the Government to support Amendment 89.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I rise with some trepidation, but also with an open mind because I want some clarity on one or two of the amendments. In general, the group of amendments we are discussing seem eminently sensible in terms of safe- guarding, but I seek some clarification. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, can give me some help, because her explanation was very well made, detailed and useful, and explained the two different groups.

My concern is specifically with Amendment 82, which says, in effect, that anyone who is a victim of criminal conduct within Section 1

“cannot be considered by the family court as a potential perpetrator of parental alienation”.

It seems an extraordinary thing to put into law. To say that somebody can never be considered by the family court to be a potential perpetrator of anything would seem to go against the spirit of open inquiry; for example, the possibility that even if one is a victim, one might well indulge in something unsavoury.

In the previous group, we heard a huge amount about the damage that can be caused by false allegations. We must always consider the possibility that false allegations are used to alienate one parent against another; this has become known as “parental alienation”. I am rather sympathetic to the concern raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, about medicalisation —I particularly do not like quack medicalisation—and I am glad to hear that many noble Lords are worried about the fact that so many people who call themselves experts are not necessarily experts, which is something I have been arguing for quite some time across a range of issues, so all that is good.

None the less, Amendment 82 uses the term “parental alienation”, and I want to know how this amendment will help, because if anyone is using, for example, falsifications that are aimed at removing one parent from a child’s life, even if that parent was previously guilty of a crime, we have to be careful, do we not?