The Ministry of Justice has begun a review of legal aid in domestic violence cases as part of efforts to gather data, giving solicitors just over two weeks to share their views.
A survey by the ministry on evidence requirements for accessing legal aid in private family cases closes on 1 July.
Law Society president Jonathan Smithers said: ‘Since the ministry is currently canvassing views about victims of domestic abuse seeking legal aid in private family law cases, we would encourage solicitors to take part in the survey.
‘It is vital to have their input – after all, they work on the frontline and can report on the challenges which the current evidence requirements place on victims of domestic violence.’
Earlier this year the ministry relaxed its domestic violence evidence requirement, more than doubling the original time limit for evidence, following a Court of Appeal ruling.
At the time justice minister Shailesh Vara said there were areas ‘where we need further information’, such as the number of individuals who have evidence more than two years old.
Solicitors will be able to provide their thoughts on the ‘most straightforward way’ for victims to evidence their violence, the current arrangements for obtaining legal aid in domestic violence cases, and whether there are obstacles that prevent individuals from fulfilling the evidence requirements.
Smithers said the Society would like to see time limits for evidence removed from the regulations, and ‘more discretion’ for the Legal Aid Agency to accept a range of evidence of abuse when deciding whether to grant legal aid.
Domestic violence charity Rights of Women also urged all legal aid firms to complete the survey ‘in the hope that it can lead to an improved gateway to legal aid that better reflects the reality and needs of those it is supposed to support’.
However, the charity ‘strongly’ recommended the ministry to investigate the impact of means testing on domestic violence survivors, which it said does not form part of the current review.
Rights of Women’s senior legal officer, Mandip Ghai, said: ‘Most applications for family law legal aid are subject to a means test which poses a number of challenges for survivors of domestic violence. They are less likely to have access to documentary evidence to prove their means and they are less able to pay contributions towards their legal aid.’
The ministry expects to publish its findings ‘in due course’.
During oral justice questions in the House of Commons yesterday, Brent Central MP Dawn Butler (pictured) criticised the government for conducting a survey with a ‘very limited timeframe’.
Butler added: ‘Do the government think that that was a reasonable way to show that they take the situation seriously? Would it not be better to have a full, open, public and transparent consultation?’
However, Vara said the Labour MP was ‘completely misinformed and wrong’, adding that the ministry was now engaging with relevant stakeholders ‘to bring in a better system that will be satisfactory to all concerned’.