The High Court today granted permission for a campaign group to challenge a government policy depriving victims of domestic violence access to legal aid.
Campaigners demonstrated outside the Royal Courts of Justice this morning ahead of the hearing. Rights of Women sought permission for a judicial review challenging the lawfulness of the government’s legal aid cuts introduced in April 2013 which it says prevent victims getting legal aid, even when it is clear there has been violence, or ongoing risk of violence, unless they can show prescribed evidence.
The Ministry of Justice insists that legal aid is still available in 'the majority' of such cases.
Represented by the Public Law Project and supported by the Law Society, which has provided an indemnity against adverse costs, Rights of Women argues this is not what parliament intended in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act.
Legal aid changes introduced in April 2013 removed public funding from most private family law matters. Accompanying regulations made legal aid available for those affected by domestic violence, but only if they meet certain criteria.
Rights for Women claims the evidential requirements are too narrow and exclude many affected women.
The charity claims 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.
They point to figures showing that two women are killed each week by a current or former partner and 500 recent victims of domestic violence commit suicide every year.
Meanwhile a survey last year by Rights of Women, Women’s Aid and Welsh Women’s Aid showed that half of all women respondents who had experienced or were experiencing domestic violence did not have the prescribed forms of evidence to access legal aid.
Of those, 61% took no action in relation to their family law problem as a result.
Emma Scott, director of Rights of Women 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 Andrew Caplen (pictured), who attended this morning’s demonstration, said: ‘The over-strict tests required to bring evidence to satisfy the broader statutory meaning of domestic violence are not what parliament intended. Legal aid is often the only way that those who suffer at the hands of abusers can bring their case before the courts.’
Caplen said: ‘Victims of domestic violence should not be excluded from accessing legal aid for family law disputes against an abusive ex-partner or relative because of these unrealistic regulations.’
An MoJ spokeswoman said: ‘Since the reforms were introduced last year thousands of people have applied for legal aid where domestic violence is involved and the majority have been granted it.
‘This government is exceptionally clear that where people have suffered or are suffering from domestic violence, legal aid must be available to help them break free from the abusive relationship.’
A full hearing will take place later this year.