Domestic Abuse Bill brings progress but legal aid for early advice vital in family cases

News the Domestic Abuse Bill has received royal assent was today welcomed by the Law Society of England and Wales.

Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has left domestic abuse victims particularly vulnerable – often trapped indoors with their alleged abuser in increasingly volatile situations. It is vital the justice system is equipped to tackle these cases.

“We appreciate the UK government’s commitment to tackling domestic abuse and we are pleased to see a ban on the cross-examination of domestic abuse victims by their perpetrators, the inclusion of economic abuse into the statutory definition of domestic abuse, the addition of children aged 16 and 17, and the appointment of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner.*

“Clauses which improve the protection of victims from cross-examination by their alleged abusers are long overdue. Some proposals, however, do not go far enough; for instance, alleged abusers should also be banned from examining some other witnesses – the couple’s children being the prime example – in court.

“Lockdown measures have made it even more difficult for victims to get time and space away from their alleged abuser. This creates significant barriers to accessing vital support services and legal advice.”

The Office for National Statistics reported that there were 206,492 domestic abuse-related violence instances between March and June 2020, a 9% increase compared to the same period in 2019.**

The National Domestic Abuse Helpline saw calls soar by 66% during lockdown and a 300% rise in visits to its website.

In the family courts, there were 68,634 new cases from October to December 2020, of which 21% were domestic violence-related, which is an increase of 6% compared with the same quarter in 2019.

I. Stephanie Boyce added:

“The Law Society is concerned by these figures especially as it has become harder for victims to access support services.

“The increased risk to the safety of women and children during this time makes it essential that routes to support and legal recourse are kept as open as possible.

“This is why we believe that the criteria for legal aid should be urgently revised to ensure that victims of domestic abuse can access legal advice without having their means assessed.

“There is insufficient support for victims of abuse to pursue their legal cases. The Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) had a significant effect on the ability of victims of abuse to access the legal advice, assistance and representation that they need in order to escape abusive relationships.

“We believe legal aid should be re-introduced for early advice in all family cases. This will ensure that victims of abuse are identified at an early stage and assisted in getting the access to justice that is needed to protect them and their children.

“If people cannot access advice or protect their rights, then those rights effectively do not exist. The UK government’s package of support for the new act is a step in the right direction and brings domestic abuse to the forefront of public conversation. We look forward to working with the UK government as they put these plans into action,” concluded I. Stephanie Boyce.

Notes to editors

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