Legal aid bill ‘contravenes UN convention’

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The government’s plans to remove legal aid in private law family cases will place the UK in breach of its obligations under a United Nations convention to prevent discrimination against women, the Gazette has been told.

Cris McCurley, partner and head of international family law at north-east firm Ben Hoare Bell, said that the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill contravenes the UK’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

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If the bill is enacted as it stands, McCurley said a judicial review on the domestic violence provisions is ‘inevitable'.The bill, which removes public funding for huge areas of civil law, including private law family cases, will deny access to legal rights for many, but will have a disproportionate and discriminatory impact on women, she claimed.

Her principal concern is limitations on legal aid for victims of domestic violence. McCurley said the government purports to give legal aid to such victims, but in order to obtain funding to deal with financial and children disputes with an abusive partner, the conditions are set so tight that they exclude the overwhelming majority of victims.

Of about 300 domestic violence cases she is presently dealing with, only two would get legal aid under the new rules, McCurley said.

Even in cases where abuse is not a factor, McCurley said the failure to provide support for the economically weaker party (usually the woman) in family proceedings, where the other party can pay for representation, may also breach the convention.

The UK ratified the CEDAW convention in 1986.

McCurley has obtained counsel’s advice and, if the bill goes through parliament unamended, will be looking to pursue a test case to obtain a judicial review of the funding decision.

If that fails, McCurley added, she will take the matter to the CEDAW committee, which has the power to make a non-compliance determination against the UK and require it to implement measures to rectify the situation.

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