The Law Society is supporting an appeal against the High Court’s backing for reforms which have the effect of restricting access to legal aid for victims of domestic violence.
Last month the High Court rejected a challenge, brought by the Public Law Project on behalf of lawyers' group Rights of Women, and supported by the Society, to rules introduced in April 2013 requiring victims of domestic violence to provide a prescribed form of evidence in order to apply for family law legal aid.
Some of the forms of evidence are subject to a 24-month time limit, despite the fact that perpetrators may remain a lifelong threat.
In the judgment, Mrs Justice Lang said she considered the lord chancellor’s efforts ‘to ensure that the domestic violence exception was strictly confined to its intended scope and not exploited as a route to obtaining legal aid’ were consistent with the statutory purpose of reducing the scope of legal aid.
Despite the ‘justifiable criticisms’ of regulation 33 - which specifies the type of supporting evidence of domestic violence which must be provided in support of an application for legal aid - Lang J (pictured) did not consider the lord chancellor’s chosen method of establishing eligibility to be an exercise of discretion that went so far as to thwart or frustrate the purpose of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
Rights of Women lodged its appeal against the decision last week. Director Emma Scott said the charity was pleased to have the continued support of its legal team at the Public Law Project and Landmark Chambers, and the Society’s backing.
She said: ‘Despite acknowledging the weight of evidence we presented that the domestic violence evidence criteria creates a bar to family law legal aid, Mrs Justice Lang’s judgment means that 40% of women continue to be unable to access the kinds of legal remedies which enable them to find safety from violent relationships.’
The Society said the ‘over-strict’ tests required to bring evidence to satisfy the broader statutory meaning of domestic violence were not what parliament intended.
A spokesperson for the Society said: ‘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.’