The Court of Appeal has begun hearing a challenge to government changes to legal aid for victims of domestic violence.
Today’s hearing comes a year after the High Court rejected a legal challenge from domestic violence charity Rights of Women over the lawfulness of rules that require domestic violence victims to provide a prescribed form of evidence 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.
Law Society president Jonathan Smithers (pictured) said: ‘The harsh tests requiring people 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 unable to access family law remedies, which are vital in order to help them escape from violent relationships and protect their children. They are being forced to face their perpetrators in court without legal representation.’
According to a new survey from Rights of Women, 53% of respondents took no action in relation to their family law problem as a result of not being able to apply for legal aid.
More than a third of respondents who had experienced or were experiencing domestic violence did not have the prescribed forms of evidence to access family law legal aid.
More than a fifth of women responding would have had one or more of the prescribed forms of evidence if the two-year time limit on those forms of evidence was not in place.
Rights of Women director Emma Scott said: ‘We continue this legal action on behalf of those women in order to hold the government to account on their promise to make family law legal aid available to victims of domestic violence.’
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said the department was ‘determined to ensure victims of domestic violence can get legal aid whenever they need it’.
The spokesperson said: ‘We have made it easier for victims of domestic violence to obtain legal aid, by ensuring a broader range of evidence qualifies. This has contributed to a 19% rise in the number of grants awarded.
‘We know how challenging it is for victims of domestic violence to take their case to court. This is why we’ve made sure most victims only have to provide evidence of domestic abuse once in the lifetime of their case.’
Update 5pm: Rights of Women confirm that judgment has been reserved.