A consultation on changes to the legal aid means test will be delayed after the Ministry of Justice confirmed that it has paused its review.
The review was part of the ministry’s legal support action plan, published in February 2018 alongside the department’s post-implementation review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. Last October officials said the ministry was still on track to publish the review, which would include a consultation on any potential changes, this summer.
However, this week justice minister Alex Chalk confirmed that work has been ‘temporarily paused’ due to Covid-19 ‘and a revised timetable for delivery of the review will be announced shortly’.
The minister was responding to a question by acting Liberal Democrat leader Sir Edward Davey on what recent assessment the ministry has made of the adequacy of the capital threshold for means testing legal aid for domestic abuse victims.
The means test is the subject of a High Court challenge brought by Public Law Project this month on behalf of a woman alleged to be the victim of domestic abuse who was denied legal aid for proceedings relating to child arrangements and the sale of her home. PLP said the woman was denied legal aid because the agency’s interpretation of the means regulations allows it to take into account ‘trapped capital’ in the home she jointly owns with her ex-partner when assessing her eligibility. Judgment is expected shortly.
Legal aid statistics published yesterday show a 23% fall in the number of civil applications for civil representation supported by evidence of domestic violence or child abuse between January and March compared to the same period last year.
However family court statistics, also published yesterday, show that 8,022 applications were made at the start of the year for a domestic violence remedy order – up 12% on the same period last year and the highest quarterly figure since the reporting series began in 2009.
The ministry says in its statistics bulletin that police forces have been using the ‘release under investigation’ powers to release an alleged perpetrator without bail conditions since 2017. ‘This is a possible driving factor behind the rise in domestic violence remedy cases, as victims seek protective orders through the courts. More recently, the increased volume may have been as a result in the publicity regarding the draft Domestic Abuse Bill.’
The Law Society said the means test review must be restarted as soon as possible, pointing out that the various thresholds within the means test have not been updated since 2009.
Society president Simon Davis said: 'The test must be restructured to ensure that those who cannot reasonably afford to pay for legal services are able to get representation. The government must also commit to uprating the means test annually in line with inflation – ensuring future generations have access to justice.'