Four in 10 victims of domestic violence are unable to meet the government’s requirements for claiming legal aid a campaign group backed by the Law Society said as a challenge to the lawfulness of changes to legal aid for domestic violence victims reached the High Court today.
Rules introduced in April 2013 under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act require victims of domestic violence to provide a prescribed form of evidence in order to apply for family law legal aid. The government claimed that the measure would protect cases involving domestic violence from its cuts in the scope of legal aid.
However a report published today by Rights of Women, Women’s Aid Federation England and Welsh Women’s Aid shows that despite changes to the list of evidence introduced in April 2014, nearly 40% of women affected by violence do not have the required forms of evidence and face the choice of paying for a solicitor privately representing themselves against the perpetrator in court; or doing nothing .
Nearly 60% of women responding to the survey said that they took no legal action as a direct result of not being eligible for legal aid. Another concern is that some of the forms of evidence are subject to a 24-month limit despite the fact that perpetrators may remain a life long threat.
Andrew Caplen, Law Society president, 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. Without legal aid women are being forced to face their perpetrators in court without legal representation. 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.’
Emma Scott, director of Rights of Women, said: ’The changes to the legal aid scheme introduced in April 2013 have had a devastating impact on women’s ability to secure safe and independent futures for themselves and their children. Our ongoing research shows that the domestic violence gateways have created a barrier to family law legal aid and to access to justice for women.’
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: 'This government is exceptionally clear that victims of domestic violence should get legal aid wherever they need it to help break free from the abusive relationship. We have twice made changes so it is easier for people to get the evidence they need to claim legal aid, both during the passage of the Act and again earlier this year. Since the reforms were introduced last year thousands of people have successfully applied for legal aid where domestic violence is involved.'