The Legal Aid Agency is being taken to the High Court over a decision not to grant legal aid to a woman said to be the victim of domestic abuse. The woman, who cannot be identified, said her mother had to sell furniture to pay for her to have legal representation in family proceedings involving her ex-partner.
The challenge against the LAA’s decision, being heard in the High Court today, has been brought by justice access group Public Law Project (PLP).
PLP says the woman is seeking legal aid for proceedings relating to child arrangements and the sale of her home. But the firm says 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.
PLP solicitor Katy Watts said: ‘Acting as a litigant in person in those proceedings could involve having to cross examine her ex-partner - of whom she is completely terrified - whilst at the same time arguing complex points of law. It is unrealistic to think that anyone in that situation could represent themselves effectively. Our client receives Universal Credit and cares for two small children. There is no way she could pay for legal representation on her own.
‘The Legal Aid Agency’s decision means that our client is expected to sell her house in order to pay for lawyers to represent her in proceedings which relate to the sale of her house. This is an absurd catch-22 that denies legal aid to highly vulnerable individuals.’
The High Court is being asked to make a declaration on the construction of regulations 31 and 37 of the means regulations, and to quash the agency’s decision.
Prior to today’s hearing, the woman said she had to go to court three times about child arrangement orders. ‘By that point I had pro bono legal advice from a solicitor, but I still had to pay for the barrister to represent me at the hearings. My solicitor managed to get the barrister to agree to represent me at legal aid rates. But even at legal aid rates my mum ended up taking out a loan and selling some of her furniture and her rings to pay for me to have a lawyer to represent me in court,’ she said.
Jenny Beck, director of family firm Beck Fitzgerald, is acting for the woman pro bono. She said: ‘Legal aid is denied to about one in five of the women I see because of the way the scheme works… There’s little sense in protective laws if normal people cannot access them.’
A spokesperson for the LAA said: ‘We cannot comment on ongoing proceedings.’
The Law Society has indemnified the woman against the risk of adverse costs, ‘without which PLP would not have been able to bring the case’, the firm said.