The Law Society has welcomed the Court of Appeal ruling that government changes to legal aid for victims of domestic violence are unlawful.
The potentially life-saving ruling comes a year after the High Court rejected a legal challenge from the charity Rights of Women over the lawfulness of new rules that require victims of domestic violence to provide a prescribed form of evidence in order to apply for family law legal aid.
The rules on evidence, introduced by the government as part of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), have prevented victims of domestic abuse from getting legal aid for family cases, even when it is clear there has been violence, or there is an ongoing risk of violence.
Without legal aid, domestic abuse victims are unable to access family-law remedies, which are vital in order to help them escape from violent relationships and protect their children.
Law Society president Jonathan Smithers said the Law Society supported the challenge brought by the Public Law Project on behalf of Rights of Women because legal aid is a lifeline for victims of abuse:
'The LASPO legal aid cuts have resulted in radical consequences for access to justice, with the worst impact affecting the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of society. Survivors of domestic violence should not be subjected to the over-strict tests required by the regulations as they now stand.
'The harsh tests exclude victims from accessing legal aid for family-law disputes against an abusive ex partner or relative and are not what parliament intended. This ruling means that access to safety and justice will no longer be denied to the very people the government expressly sought to protect with its amendments to the regulations.'
Emma Scott, director of Rights of Women, said:
'For nearly three years we have known that the strict evidence requirements for legal aid have cut too many women off from the very family law remedies that could keep them and their children safe. Today’s judgement is important recognition of women's real-life experiences of domestic violence and means that more women affected by violence will have access to advice and representation in the family courts.
'The Court of Appeal has accepted our arguments that the fear of a perpetrator does not disappear after two years and recognised that forms of violence, such as financial abuse, are almost impossible for women to evidence. We look forward to working with the Ministry of Justice on amendments to the regulations to ensure that women affected by all forms of domestic violence are able to get legal aid.'
Notes to editors
1. Rights of Women is supported by the Law Society
2. For further information contact Emma Scott, firstname.lastname@example.org, tel: 020 7251 6575/ 07970 868 259
3. Counsel in this case are Nathalie Lieven QC and Zoe Leventhal of Landmark Chambers
New data from Rights of Women shows that 40 per cent of victims still do not have the required forms of evidence to access legal aid. This is despite amendments to the regulations in April 2014.
For the past three years, since the introduction of the domestic violence evidence criteria, Rights of Women has been monitoring the impact of the legal-aid regulations on the ability of women affected by violence to access family law legal aid. Their latest survey findings show that women affected by violence, who do not have the required forms of evidence, are faced with a stark choice: pay a solicitor privately, often causing them to get into debt; represent themselves and face their perpetrator in court; or do nothing and continue to be at risk of violence.
As a result, nearly half of the people the government expressly sought to protect from the removal of family law legal aid remain unprotected. The statistics are stark: 1.2 million women experience domestic violence every year.
More than 50 per cent of women responding to the Rights of Women survey said that they took no legal action as a direct result of not being eligible for legal aid. The rules deny access to safety and justice to the very women the government sought to protect from the removal of family law from the scope of legal aid.
A copy of the Rights of Women data is available on the Rights of Women website.
About Rights of Women
Rights of Women is a registered charity that provides free legal advice to women and engages on a policy level concerning access to justice and violence against women issues. Rights of Women provide training on legal issues to statutory and third-sector professionals, write legal publications designed to assist individual women, and those supporting them, through the law and provide three legal advice lines, offering legal advice to women on immigration and asylum issues, sexual violence and criminal law, and family law (including domestic violence, divorce, contact disputes). Their advice lines are staffed by qualified practising women solicitors and barristers.
About the Law Society of England and Wales
The Law Society is the independent professional body for solicitors in England and Wales that works globally to support and represent its members, promoting the highest professional standards and the rule of law.
Law Society Press Office: 020 7320 5764