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Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Family lawyers call for urgent changes to child evidence

Written by The Press Association

Lawyers who specialise in cases involving children want changes in the law to ensure that youngsters who say they have been abused can safely give evidence at court hearings

Heads of the Association of Lawyers for Children say there is an "urgent need" for statutory provision to cater for children embroiled in complex family court cases.

Their call follows a ruling by Court of Appeal judges on Friday in a case where a teenage girl had complained of being sexually abused by her mother's partner.

Family court judge Clifford Bellamy had initially overseen the case at hearings in Leicester, appeal judges heard.

He was told that the man was embroiled in a dispute relating to the care of two children he fathered with his ex-partner.

The teenager - one of the woman's daughters from a previous relationship - said the man had sexually abused her. The man had denied the allegation and had not been charged with any offence.

Judge Bellamy had to decide - on a balance of probabilities - whether the teenage girl's allegation was true before making rulings relating to the care of the man's two children.

And he concluded that the girl, now in her late teens, should give evidence at a family court ''fact-finding'' hearing and face cross-examination.

But the man had represented himself at hearings. He pocketed around £200 a month too much to qualify for legal aid yet said he did not have enough to pay lawyers.

That raised the prospect of the teenager being questioned in court directly by the man she said had sexually abused her.

Judge Bellamy said he was ''satisfied'' that the man did not have enough to pay lawyers.

The judge also said the man should not personally cross-examine the teenager.

And he concluded that the Government should find the money to pay for a lawyer to question the girl on the man's behalf.

He ruled, in January, that, if the man did not qualify for legal aid, then cash should come from the budget set aside for running and managing courts - and lawyers' bills paid by HM Courts and Tribunals Service.

The three appeal judges - Lord Dyson, Lady Justice Black and Lord Justice McFarlane - disagreed.

Lord Dyson - who is the Master of the Rolls and the second most senior judge in England and Wales - concluded that Judge Bellamy had no legal power to 'make the order he made''.

He said the case was "straightforward" and suggested that the answer would have been for Judge Bellamy to have questioned the girl.

But Lord Dyson said there could be cases - which featured ''complex'' evidence - where the ''position is different''.

He said in such cases a lack of legal representation might put someone's right to a fair trial at risk.

And he suggested that legislation may need to be tweaked.

He added: ''Consideration should be given to the enactment of a statutory provision for the appointment of a legal representative to conduct the cross-examination and the payment out of central funds of such sums as appear to be reasonably necessary to cover the cost of the legal representative.''

Maud Davis, co-chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children, supported Lord Dyson's suggestion.

"It is vital that children's voices are heard in these very difficult situations, and that they can safely give evidence if the court decides that is necessary," she said.

"If the law as it stands makes no proper provision for this to happen, then there is an urgent need for statutory provision."

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