The Law Society has welcomed the government’s decision to remove a time limit for evidence that will make it easier for domestic violence victims to qualify for legal aid.
The Ministry of Justice confirmed that, after reviewing current evidence arrangements for accessing legal aid in private family cases, the current five-year time limit will be removed completely.
The types of evidence that can be accepted will also be ‘significantly broadened’. In future, the ministry says evidence will be accepted from domestic violence support organisations, removing difficulties faced by victims in acquiring evidence.
A Law Society spokesperson said: ‘Legal aid is a lifeline for those who have suffered abuse. It is often the only way someone can bring their case before the courts.
‘Relaxing time and evidence restrictions so more victims of domestic violence can get legal aid for court hearings will be a welcome relief for many people. Today’s positive decision is the end result of work we and other organisations have been doing with the MoJ for many months.’
The news was welcomed by campaigners who, with the support of Chancery Lane, fought rules introduced in April 2013 that required victims of domestic violence to provide a prescribed form of evidence to apply for family law legal aid.
Some of the forms of evidence had been subject to a 24-month time limit, despite the fact that perpetrators may remain a lifelong threat.
Last year the ministry relaxed the evidence requirement, more than doubling the original time limit.
Rights of Women director Estelle du Boulay said the ministry’s announcement was a victory for women and common sense.
Du Boulay said: ‘The current rules are so restrictive that they fail to assist a large number of victims – the majority of whom are women. Our evidence showed that up to 40% of women could not meet the requirements.
‘It is important not to forget however that we and others warned of these problems before the new rules were introduced. We are hopeful that these changes signal a renewed commitment from government to address the broader landscape of domestic violence provision more proactively.’
The ministry today also published the findings of its research into alleged perpetrators of abuse as litigants in person in private family law.
Judges raised concerns that employing practices such as relaying questions to vulnerable witnesses on behalf of a litigant in person could lead to questions about their impartiality.
Access to screens to separate the parties and video-links to enable evidence to be given from outside court were perceived as inadequate or inconsistent.
The report suggests further training and guidance for the judiciary in managing such cases should be considered, ‘particularly in relation to exploring the potential for developing a more inquisitorial approach’.
There is also scope for ‘closer collaboration’ by the court and judiciary with external organisations.
A long-awaited prisons and courts bill published today states that the lord chancellor will end the cross-examination of domestic violence victims by their alleged abusive ex-partners in the family courts.
Welcoming the change, the Society spokesperson said: ‘The family court process should help the truth come out, it should not provide a platform for a perpetrator to compound their abuse.
‘In the family courts, the victim of abuse is a party to the case. They have to engage with the abuse throughout the proceedings and we think there is more work to be done to ensure that the protection for victims is adequate.
‘We look forward to working with the government so that the new measures achieve the aim we all have of protecting victims of abuse.’