I. Stephanie Boyce is deputy vice president of the Law Society and is a Council member representing the Women Lawyers Division. Here she talks about the importance of ensuring that victims of domestic abuse have access to the support and legal advice they need to stay safe.
Coronvirus lockdown puts domestic abuse victims at risk
The coronavirus lockdown is an incredibly dangerous time for domestic abuse victims and now more than ever, they must be able to access the help and support they need.
The lockdown has made it even more difficult for domestic abuse victims to get the time away from their abuser to get the help they need – leaving many trapped in an increasingly volatile situation.
Refuge has reported a 25% spike in calls to the national domestic abuse helpline since the lockdown began. This is compounded by a lack of physical access to the courts. This is a truly alarming figure and highlights the need for more to be done to protect those who are victims of domestic abuse and to ensure that they have access to the support that they need to keep them safe from harm.
The legal profession is still working hard for victims of domestic abuse and this hasn’t stopped just because many solicitors are no longer in the office.
We are aware that victims may not have the same access to support as before social distancing measures were introduced and the Law Society is working to ensure all victims of domestic abuse have access to justice, while solicitors on the front line continue to advocate for victims, steering them to services to keep them safe. Despite the uncertain circumstances, it is even more vital now that domestic abuse victims must still be provided with legal advice, support and safe accommodation.
While the family justice system is functioning remotely, there are concerns about fairness being upheld for parties, including the domestic abuse victims and survivors. However, solicitors are continuing to engage with their clients, ensuring vulnerable parties are represented and supported at remote hearings and solicitors are working to ensure that these parties still have the same access to justice as they previously had.
Behind the scenes, we are continuing to engage with government on changes to legal aid to ensure legal advice is available for those that need it.
The government's response
The government’s ‘You Are Not Alone’ campaign to raise public awareness of domestic abuse and signpost resources – and forthcoming investment in domestic abuse services – are welcome but there is still much more to be done.
It is encouraging to see that government guidance for emergency injunctions – which stop abusers harming or threatening victims – now acknowledges that victims may not be able to get time or space away from their abuser to attend a telephone hearing.
However for those who do not qualify for legal aid and cannot afford a solicitor, navigating the application process and telephone hearings unrepresented can prove even more complex than when undertaken in physical courts.
This is just one example of why non-means tested legal aid must be available for domestic abuse cases. Solicitors working with domestic abuse victims not only provide them with essential legal advice, navigating the family justice system on their behalf, but they also ensure victims are aware of the support available to them. It is therefore vital that legal aid is available for all domestic abuse victims.
It is also vital that domestic abuse gateway regulations are relaxed during this time. Victims are currently required to seek evidence from doctors to access the legal aid gateway, but doctors are simply too busy to provide evidence of abuse at this time – whilst victims still urgently need access to advice and representation. We therefore believe solicitors should be able to certify that an individual is a victim of domestic abuse for the purposes of obtaining legal aid during the crisis.
Funding for support services
Once some lockdown measures are lifted, there are victims who might have waited to make contact with support services and will take the earliest opportunity to access the courts.
It is vital that every effort is made to support refuges and advice centres and signpost domestic abuse victims to expert solicitors – giving victims and their children the resources they need to protect themselves and to feel safe during this pandemic.
Adequate funding for these support services is therefore vital to ensure that there are no gaps in services for victims, particularly those who have been isolated from support networks due to the coronavirus crisis.
The Law Society has been raising these concerns with government and working with domestic abuse support organisations to highlight the need for greater support and signposting to enable victims of domestic abuse to get access to the help and protection they need during the pandemic.
The COVID-19 lockdown is an incredibly dangerous time for domestic abuse victims and now more than ever, they must be able to access the help and support they need.
Domestic Abuse Bill
The Law Society has welcomed the government’s commitment to tackling domestic abuse, represented by the draft Domestic Abuse Bill currently going through the House of Commons.
In particular we welcome measures in the Bill to prohibit the cross-examination of domestic abuse victims by their perpetrators, the inclusion of economic abuse into the statutory definition of domestic abuse, the inclusion of children aged 16 and 17, and the appointment of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner.
However, legislation alone is not enough. There is a need for services to be properly funded and the proposals made within the bill to be supported by a full programme of education.
We have three key priorities for the Bill:
- cross-examination – we welcome steps to prohibit the cross-examination of victims of domestic abuse by their alleged abusers. We encourage the government to extend this provision to include examination-in-chief
- funding for services – we believe that further funding is required for domestic abuse services and other vital public services in order to adequately tackle domestic abuse, particularly given the increase in cases as a result of coronavirus
- availability of legal advice and support – we encourage the government to ensure that victims of domestic abuse are able to access legal advice and support. The legal aid means test is preventing many living in poverty from accessing justice
Free 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0808 2000 247