What’s in a name? Complainant versus victim.

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore. 

The verdict in the Carl Beech case has only just been delivered and the recriminations have begun. If anyone was in any doubt about the dangers inherent in identifying a complainant as a ‘victim’ at the outset of any investigation or court hearing, then here you have it.

An allegation which is not accepted or not proven is not a fact. Someone may identify themselves readily as a victim when in fact they are mistaken – or worse, a fantasist or a liar. Proceedings in either a civil or criminal case hear evidence and make determinations. There is no presumption of guilt in a criminal court. Those making assertions in civil courts must prove them on the balance of probabilities.

I have had cause to be critical of the Ministry of Justice and its recently set up 3 month Inquiry into how the family courts deal with allegations of domestic abuse. My unease stems largely from the fact that the MoJ appear to be operating from the presumption that men are perpetrators of violence and women their victims, even before any evidence has been heard.

My unease has now increased when I learned today of a ‘new service’ set up and funded by the MoJ to deliver support to ‘victims of domestic abuse in family courts’. I queried use of word ‘victim’ and was told the MoJ have set the terms of the service, including its terminology.

I have had long standing concerns about the use of the word ‘victim’ to describe a complainant. In summary:

  • setting up a complainant as a ‘victim’ at the inception of the court process gives that person a wholly unrealistic view of how their evidence may be treated in an adversarial court process.
  • Treating one party as a victim prior to any findings made about the factual basis for that status, risks undermining the fairness of the proceedings and casting the respondent as a ‘villain’ at the outset.

This raises so many questions

  • Who benefits from this dangerous muddying of the forensic waters?
  • Why isn’t it possible to offer support to anyone going through the court process without first deeming them a ‘victim’ on possibly nothing other than their wish to identify as such?
  • Is this seen as an ‘easier’ response than improving the woeful physical nature of many court buildings or cheaper than providing legal representation to both sides of a private law dispute?

 

I have therefore made a FOI request on 8th August 2019 and will update on 29th August.

I would be grateful for the following information, relating to the project which the Ministry of Justice has asked the Citizens Witness Service to run ‘delivering support to victims of domestic abuse in family courts’.

I am told that this service has already launched in Worcester Family Court in July and is about to launch In Swindon. I can find no information about this service on line but was told that the MoJ ‘as funder’ has set the definition and scope of this service, including the terminology of ‘victim’ . Either applicant or respondent – or presumably both – are apparently ‘deemed’ to be victims if they declare themselves to be. The service is offered prior to any determination of any contested allegation by the family court.

I have raised concern that this practice of identifying a complainant as a ‘victim’ prior to such determination of what actually happened, is fraught with difficulty; there is a clear tension between a forensic process that may end in rejecting a complainant’s account and a service that supports someone as a ‘victim’ at the very inception of the court process.

I am told that this service is being offered after ‘wide ranging consultation with victims of domestic abuse’.

I would like to know therefore

1. The time period over which this consultation took place
2. The identities of those individuals or organisations who were consulted.
3. The cost of this consultation
4. The cost of the service to date
5. The anticipated running costs of this service over the first 12 months of its inception.
6. The number and location of those Family Courts who will be running the service

Further Reading

My response to the Inquiry Assessing risk of harm to children and parents in private law children cases

 

Feelings and Dogma cannot set the agenda in Family Justice

Judges don’t need ‘training’ about violence – they need evidence.

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