From January domestic violence victims will no longer have to endure harsh evidence tests to qualify for legal aid, the government announced today.
The Ministry of Justice decided in February that it would scrap a five-year time limit for some forms of evidence and broaden the range of documents that can be accepted as evidence. A statutory instrument amending the legal aid regulations will be laid in parliament on Friday.
Legal aid is available to people involved in private family disputes if they are victims or risk becoming victims of domestic violence or child abuse.
Campaign group Rights of Women, with the support of the Law Society, successfully fought rules introduced in April 2013 that required victims to provide a prescribed form of evidence to apply for family law legal aid. Some of the firms of evidence had been subject to a 24-month time limit, despite the fact that perpetrators may remain a lifelong threat.
Following the Court of Appeal ruling in February last year, the ministry relaxed the evidence requirement, more than doubling the original time limit. A year later the ministry decided to remove the time limit altogether.
Justice minister Dominic Raab told a Westminster Hall debate last week that his department has been working with the Society, Rights of Women, Women's Aid and family law group Resolution.
Raab said today: 'We have listened to victims' groups and carefully reviewed the criteria for legal aid for victims of domestic abuse in family cases. These changes make sure that vulnerable women and children get legal support, so their voice is properly heard in court.'
The range of documents accepted as evidence of abuse will be widened to include statements from domestic violence support organisations and housing support officers. At present the government accepts documents from social services, law enforcement and medical professionals.
The statutory instrument will also amend regulations to accept evidence of abuse against previous partners to support evidence that an applicant is 'at risk' of domestic violence.
Law Society president Joe Egan welcomed the fact that it will now be easier for victims to provide evidence and qualify for legal aid.
'The five-year time limit causes difficulties for victims who were abused more than five years ago but have no recent documents to prove this,' he said. 'The forms of evidence required have also been very restrictive. Broadening the types of evidence that can be accepted to include statements from domestic violence support organisations and housing support officers will remove many of the difficulties faced by victims.'
Egan added: '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. Today’s positive decision is the end result of work the Law Society and other organisations have been doing with the MoJ for many months.'