The government has made two key concessions demanded by opponents of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders bill, days before the legislation enters report stage in the House of Lords.
In amendments tabled today, the government accepted that the broad definition of domestic violence used by the Association of Chief Police Officers should be employed in the bill.
This definition makes it clear that physical, psychological and emotional abuse, together with financial abuse in the form of bullying a partner by controlling their finances, will be regarded as domestic violence, enabling a party to receive legal aid.
In a press statement meanwhile, the government, which is replacing legal aid in most private family matters with more money for mediation, also said it accepts that mediation is unlikely to be suitable for victims of domestic violence, and is therefore committed to retaining legal aid in these cases.
The government has also conceded that legal aid should remain automatically available in clinical negligence cases in which negligent treatment or care taking place during pregnancy, or shortly after birth, has resulted in serious neurological injury to the child.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: ‘The government is committed to supporting victims of domestic violence. We have today laid an amendment to the legal aid bill which will put it beyond doubt that those who have suffered physical, psychological or financial domestic abuse will continue to receive legal aid to help them to resolve any separation disputes over property or child contact.
‘We also agree that clinical negligence claims in obstetrics cases which result in severe disability must receive legal aid.’
Commenting on the move, a Law Society spokesman said: 'The government has finally realised that some of its positions are simply untenable. We will study today’s concessions carefully, but they ought to be merely the first of many.
'If cutting costs is the aim, this bill isn’t the best way of achieving that. What it does cut is the ability of ordinary people to secure justice, by making the risks too high and the costs simply unaffordable.'
A spokesman for campaign group Justice for All said the concessions are welcome but do not go far enough.
On domestic violence, he said it is vital that the narrow evidence criteria to prove domestic violence do not exclude victims from support.
But he added the real battle will be over social welfare law, particularly legal aid for welfare benefit issues.
A Labour party source said: 'We will be scrutinising the amendments in detail, although at first blush it does not look like they have met either the needs of citizens or the demands from campaigners.’
The MoJ press release said that the government’s change of heart followed cross-party discussions in the House of Lords.