The Court of Appeal is set to decide whether to overturn a previous ruling on the lawfulness of government changes to Legal Aid for domestic violence victims following a challenge by Rights of Women. The organization released a report to coincide with their hearing showing that under the current rules 40% of domestic violence victims do not have the required forms of evidence to enable them to access Legal Aid.
Under current law, in order to access family Legal Aid, victims of domestic violence must have evidence of their abuse in a certain form, whether it be a GP report, a MARAC report, evidence of a police caution for a domestic violence related offence or similar document. However, the document must have been completed in the last 24 months and there are some concerns about this as perpetrators can remain a lifelong threat to their victims.
It is important to remember that the term “domestic violence” covers emotional, financial and sexual abuse as well as physical violence towards the victim.
Rights of Women have argued that, under the current rules, introduced by the Government as part of their reforms to Legal Aid in April 2013, victims of domestic abuse are unable to get Legal Aid for family cases even where they can show that there has been abuse or where there is an on-going risk of violence. The latest survey carried out by the group shows that many women who are felt not to have the correct evidence either have to pay privately, causing them to get into debt, or represent themselves and have to face their perpetrator in Court, or do nothing with the continued risk of violence that option brings.
Rights for Women argue that as a result of the cuts almost half of the people that the government sought to protect legal funding for ate left with nothing.
1.2 million women experience domestic violence every year. The Rights of Women survey showed that more than 50% of respondents took no legal action about the domestic violence as a direct result of being ineligible for Legal Aid.
Law Society President, Jonathan Smithers says; "Legal aid is a lifeline for victims of abuse. This new data shows that access to safety and justice is still being denied to the very people the government expressly sought to protect with its amendments to the regulations. The harsh tests requiring people to bring evidence to satisfy the broader statutory meaning of domestic violence are not what parliament intended. Legal aid is often the only way that those who suffer at the hands of abusers can bring their case before the courts. Without legal aid, women are unable to access family law remedies, which are vital in order to help them escape from violent relationships and protect their children. They are being forced to face their perpetrators in court without legal representation."
Emma Scott, Director of Rights of Women, says; “The government acknowledges that domestic violence is 'often hidden away behind closed doors, with the victim suffering in silence.' More than three years on from the devastating cuts to legal aid and despite amendments to the rules, we know that those victims behind those doors do not have the required pieces of paper to prove they have experienced domestic violence. Our research has consistently shown that nearly half of women affected by domestic violence do not have the required forms of evidence to apply for family law legal aid and that more than half of those women tell us that they take no legal action as a result. This leaves them at risk of further violence and even death."
Nicola Whitley, Senior Associate Solicitor and Head of Family at Swain & Co Solicitors says, “For me, it is very concerning that so many victims of domestic abuse are still not receiving the Legal Aid they are entitled to. We are very successful at obtaining Legal Aid for victims of domestic violence. If you have any queries about obtaining Legal Aid following domestic abuse please contact us and we can discuss individual circumstances.”
If you have suffered domestic violence and require legal representation or have any queries about the required forms of evidence for Legal Aid in family law cases please contact us today on 02392 492 967.