The Court of Appeal has upheld a challenge to the government’s changes to legal aid for victims of domestic violence.
Last year 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.
However, in The Queen (on the application of Rights of Women) v The Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Justice, the Court of Appeal ruled today that regulation 33 was ‘invalid’ insofar as it ‘requires verifications of domestic violence to be given within a 24-month period before any application for legal aid and does not cater for victims of domestic violence who have suffered from financial abuse’.
Rights of Women director Emma Scott said today’s ‘important’ judgment meant more women affected by violence will have access to advice and representation in the family courts.
The Law Society backed the challenge brought by the Public Law Project on behalf of Rights of Women to the regulation in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO).
Society president Jonathan Smithers 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. Survivors of domestic violence should not be subjected to the over-strict tests required by the regulations as they now stand.
‘This ruling means that access to safety and justice will no longer be denied to the very people the government expressly sought to protect with its amendments to the regulations.’
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said it was ‘pleased’ that the court ‘confirmed the lord chancellor did have the power to set domestic violence evidence requirements.’
The ministry will ‘now carefully consider the two findings made about the period of time for which evidence applies and concerns about victims of financial abuse’.
The spokesperson added: ‘We are determined to ensure victims of domestic violence can get legal aid whenever they need it.
‘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.’
Scott said Rights of Women ‘look forward to working with the MoJ on amendments to the regulations to ensure that women affected by all forms of domestic violence are able to get legal aid’.
Family lawyers’ group Resolution said its members were ‘proud to help Rights of Women provide evidence that illustrates that the current rules are flawed’.
National chair Jo Edwards said: ‘We look forward to working with the government and our partners to make the changes necessary to ensure more victims of domestic abuse have access to family legal aid.'