Bid to save legal aid for domestic violence victims

Topics: Family and children,Legal aid and access to justice,Courts business

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The government faces a legal challenge to the lawfulness of legal aid reforms which the claimants say prevent domestic violence victims getting financial help in family law cases.

The action has been brought by two charities - the Public Law Project and Rights of Women - with the support of the Law Society, which has provided indemnity against adverse costs.

On 1 April the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 came into effect removing legal aid for the majority of private family law matters.

Accompanying it, the Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) Regulations 2012 introduced criteria making legal aid available for those affected by domestic violence.

However the groups claim the evidential requirements to prove domestic violence are too narrow and exclude many women even where it is clear there has been violence or that there is an ongoing risk.

They argue that the regulations do not give effect to the intention of parliament in LASPO.

The LASPO definition of domestic violence is any incident, or pattern of incidents, of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse whether psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional between individuals who are associated with each other.

However some of these forms of violence would not fall into the prescriptive evidential requirement. 

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In addition, the evidence provision in many cases has a 24-month time limit and the charities argue that it is too restrictive as perpetrators may remain a lifelong threat.

A survey carried out last year by Rights of Women, Women’s Aid and Welsh Women’s Aid showed that half of all women surveyed who had experienced or were experiencing domestic violence did not have the prescribed forms of evidence to access family law legal aid.

Of those 61% took no action in relation to their family law problem as a result of not being able to get legal aid.

The charities claim the regulations are ultra vires and infringe Articles 6 and 8 of the Human Rights Act and have asked the High Court to quash them.
 
Director of Rights of Women Emma Scott said: ‘This legal action is taken on behalf of those women in order to hold the government to account on their promise to continue to make family law legal aid available to victims of domestic violence.’
 
Law Society president Nicholas Fluck said: ‘The LASPO legal aid cuts have resulted in radical consequences for access to justice with the worst impact affecting the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of society. 

‘It is vital that survivors of domestic abuse can bring evidence to satisfy the broader statutory meaning of domestic violence, not the over-strict tests required by the regulations as they now stand.’

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: ‘Where people have suffered domestic violence legal aid must be available to help them break free from the abusive relationship.’ He said the ministry has had to take difficult decisions to reduce the cost of legal aid to make it ‘sustainable and targeted where most needed’.

He said the ministry's approach to legal aid funding in these cases is ‘proportionate and justified, and we will be making that case in court’.

Readers' comments (3)

  • I worked as a paralegal and then as a solicitor specialising in domestic violence for more than ten years before some years ago, and with regret, I saw the writing on the wall and left the profession for good. I was always of the opinion that I was effectively doing a job which the police had the power to do but had no interest in. The police have stated repeatedly that they would pay more attention to the needs of the vulnerable and yet have consistently have failed to do so. The only way I could ever protect my clients was to obtain civil injunctions and then pass those onto the police with varying results as to how they actually enforced them. My private clients of course were always left at the mercy of the police and the CPS. I saw yesterday that the BBC news reported a very distressing case of domestic violence which would appear to show that despite police assurances some forces still do not recognise that domestic violence is a cause for concern. What the civil legal aid budget at the very least used to do was provide someone to whom my clients could come to as a point of contact and who could contact the relevant police station and encourage them to do what they are paid to do.
    If the police are unwilling or incapable of doing their jobs then the state is further remiss by not providing the funds for certain very lowly paid lawyers to remind them of what they are already empowered to do.
    It is with personal regret that I left the profession as the stories I could tell of vulnerable young women and children I helped will live with me forever.

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  • The powers that be and the comfortably-off entertain the profound misapprehension that public authorities fulfil their statutory obligations to the vulnerable and that lawyers only get involved to threaten action "as a last resort".
    Not so ! lawyers are needed all the time to enforce so-called statutory rights . The Legal aid cuts therefore deny more than access to Justice; they further protect and institutionalise the huge failure of the authorities to carry out their obligations .

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  • Save our souls from so called highly paid contract accounts managers consultants assessors of LAA who have made lives of solicitors difficult.

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