Over the past few weeks, the tabloids have talked about little else other than the court case taking place in America between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. Depp is suing his former wife for defamation following a newspaper article in which she identified herself a victim of domestic abuse, despite the article not explicitly naming Depp.
The proceedings, first started in 2019, were delayed to allow for libel proceedings which took place in England between The Sun newspaper and Depp in response to an article which labelled the actor a “wife beater”. Although that case was not directly between the former couple, the Court found that the allegations Heard had made, which The Sun relied upon to support its article, were in the majority of instances true.
Key evidence in the latest trial has related to allegations of domestic abuse on the part of Ms Heard, and an equally large raft of counter-allegations of abuse by Mr Depp. The entire proceedings are being televised and very graphic and detailed evidence is being broadcast daily on Court TV then repeated in the wider media.
The American proceedings have seen a huge wave of support for Johnny Depp and positively venomous coverage of Amber Heard and the evidence she has given, despite the proceedings not even being concluded.
Family lawyers in this country have watched with increasing concern for victims of domestic abuse seeking help here. Anecdotal evidence suggests the hearing has made victims reluctant to seek help, fearing matters of a very sensitive and private nature could be made public and potentially and expose them to harm or even ridicule.
With this in mind, we thought it might be helpful to dispel some of these fears by explaining what help is available in the Family Court and how cases are dealt with – which we are very glad to say, is in a wholly different way from the current Depp/Heard trial.
Will my hearing be conducted public, who can attend?
Family Court hearings about children and domestic abuse are not attended by members of the public or the media. Only the people directly concerned can attend. If they use legal advisers, they can also attend but family members and friends cannot.
Family Court cases don’t involve a jury. A Judge will make the final decision in the case.
Will I have to face my abuser? Can they ask me questions?
You will be in the same room as the other party if the hearing takes place at a Court building but your solicitor can help arrange something referred to as ‘special measures’. These can include separate entrances/exits to the Court, separate waiting rooms and a screen to shield you when giving evidence.
A lot of hearings now take place online via video conference so in some cases the Court will direct that a party should turn their camera off so they are not visible to the person giving evidence – the digital equivalent of a screen.
A solicitor can advise you on other practical steps you can take before a video hearing such as depersonalising your space, or dialling into the call away from your own home if you feel more comfortable.
The way questions have been put to witnesses at Depp/Heard civil trial is somewhat different to how the same issues would be dealt with in the Family Court. Firstly, written evidence is only supplemented by oral questions and answers where it is strictly necessary. Where oral evidence is required, the alleged abuser will not be allowed to directly question the alleged victim. They will be required to instruct a lawyer – using Legal Aid if necessary – or required to submit questions in advance in writing for the Judge to approve and then relay to the alleged victim his or herself.
The questions that lawyers can ask must be necessary to progress the case and should be put in a courteous manner to both parties. Any questions going into unnecessary aspects of the parties’ private lives will not be permitted.
Family Court hearings are usually very brief, with most lasting less than a day. In some exceptional cases, a person will be required to give evidence for more than one day, but at least part of that time will be questions from their own lawyer to support their case.
What about after the hearing?
The content of Family Court proceedings is private. This includes the evidence given, and in some cases even the Court’s decision. Evidence given to the Court must not be shared online under any circumstances and the Court’s decision should only be shared with people who need to see it like the police or the local authority – definitely not on social media.
There’s no point in applying because Court Orders only last a year
The Court does not make Orders that last longer than they have to, but that does not mean that every Order offers protection for just a year. If a longer period is appropriate, the Court can make an Order lasting a number of years, or even indefinitely.
If an Order does have an expiry date, an application can be made to the Court to extend it if necessary.
The first step in tackling domestic abuse is speaking to someone. Our Family Law Team have a wealth of experience in dealing with abusive behaviour. You can speak to them about what protections are available to you in the Family Court and also refer you on to support services.
If you’d like to speak to us in confidence, please telephone 01227 763939 for to arrange an appointment by telephone or in person at one of our three offices.