Labour has pledged to restore an annual £5m cut in legal aid for victims of domestic violence by increasing victim surcharge payments if it wins Thursday’s general election.
The party said it will increase the surcharge - which was first introduced in 2007 to fund victim services - by £5 on all those who receive non-fine sentences. Labour says the increase will generate an additional income of up to £10m, which will go towards legal aid for victims of domestic violence.
The income will help to restore aid cut annually from civil legal aid for domestic violence cases since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came into force in April 2013.
The funding pledge is Labour’s only commitment to restoring any of the £300m annual savings to legal aid made by the coalition government through LASPO.
With less than 48 hours to go until the polling booths open, Labour made a series of further pledges to provide more support for victims of domestic violence.
It promised to lower the evidence threshold required to access legal aid by extending the evidence criteria to a wider range of organisations such as domestic violence charities and refuges.
Public authorities, including GPs, will not be able to charge for evidence needed to prove abuse.
The exceptional cases funding (ECF) scheme will be ’overhauled’, although no details have been released on how the revised scheme would look. An ECF application for civil legal services is made where a case falls outside the scope of civil legal aid but the client or conducting solicitor believes there is a requirement to provide funding because failure to do so would breach the Human Rights Act.
Labour said it would also review a two-year rule on evidence eligibility.
Earlier this year, the High Court rejected a challenge, brought by the Public Law Project on behalf of lawyers’ group Rights of Women, and supported by the Law Society, to rules introduced in April 2013 requiring victims of domestic violence to provide a prescribed form of evidence in order to apply for legal aid.
Some of the forms of evidence are subject to a 24-month time limit.
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan (pictured) said: ‘In the real world, the damage done by domestic violence doesn’t just stop two years after the event. There needs to be much greater flexibility in the system to take into account the really difficult circumstances faced by many victims of domestic violence.’
Law Society president Andrew Caplen said legal aid was often the only way those who suffered at the hands of abusers could bring their cases before the courts.
He said: ‘Unfortunately, however, victims of domestic violence are often prevented from access legal aid because of the current unrealistic regulations, which is why we have been saying for some time that these strict tests should be relaxed. They are not, in our view, what parliament intended as they can prevent victims of abuse from obtaining legal assistance, even when it is clear there has been violence or there is an ongoing risk of violence.’
Earlier this year the Ministry of Justice said it had made changes to expand the types of evidence that could be used to access legal aid.
Since the reforms were introduced, the ministry said thousands of people had successfully applied for legal aid where domestic violence was involved and it would keep the new system under review.