This month the Court of Appeal will decide whether to overturn a High Court ruling on the lawfulness of government changes to legal aid for domestic violence victims.
The hearing on 28 January comes a year after the High Court rejected a legal challenge from domestic violence 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 Court of Appeal hearing coincides with the release of new data from Rights of Women, which 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.
Law Society president Jonathan Smithers expressed concern that some of the forms of evidence that are required are subject to a 24-month time limit even though perpetrators may remain a life-long threat to their victims:
'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, said:
'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. We continue this legal action on behalf of those women in order to hold the government to account on their promise to make family law legal aid available to victims of domestic violence.'
The new rules on evidence criteria, introduced by the government as part of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, are preventing 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.
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 full report is available on the Rights of Women website.
Summary of findings:
This report demonstrates that the domestic violence evidence criteria continues to prove a barrier to accessing family law legal aid for women affected by violence.
- 37 per cent of women responding to the survey who had experienced or were experiencing domestic violence did not have the prescribed forms of evidence to access family law legal aid.
- 23 per cent of women responding would have had one or more of the prescribed forms of evidence if the two-year time limit on those forms of evidence was not in place.
- The most common form of evidence available to women is one that was introduced in April 2014: a referral to a domestic violence support organisation by a health professional (18 per cent).
- The other most common forms of evidence include: evidence from a medical professional (16 per cent); evidence of a protective injunction (14 per cent); and evidence from social services (14 per cent).
- 71 per cent of respondents said it was difficult (37 per cent) or very difficult (35 per cent) to find a legal aid solicitor in their area.
- 34 per cent of respondents were having to travel between six and fifteen miles to find a legal aid solicitor. 23 per cent had to travel more than 15 miles.
- 53 per cent of respondents took no action in relation to their family law problem, as a result of not being able to apply for legal aid. 29 per cent paid a solicitor privately and 28 per cent represented themselves at court.
Notes to editors:
1. Rights of Women is supported by the Law Society
2. For further information contact Emma Scott, tel: 020 7251 6575/ 07970 868 259
3. Counsel in this case are Zoe Leventhal and Nathalie Lieven of Landmark Chambers
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. We 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). Our advice lines are staffed by qualified practising women solicitors and barristers.
Visit the Rights of Women website
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.
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