High Court to decide whether victims of domestic violence should have access to legal aid

Rights of Women. On 12 December 2014 the High Court heard a legal challenge of the lawfulness of Government changes to legal aid for domestic violence victims. The case coincides with the release of figures which show 40% of victims do not have the required forms of evidence to access legal aid. The legal challenge centres around the lawfulness of new rules introduced by the Government in April 2013 which require victims of domestic violence to provide a prescribed form of evidence in order to apply for family law legal aid. Some of the forms of evidence are subject to a 24 month time limit despite the fact that perpetrators may remain a life long threat to their victims. A report  published by Rights of Women, Women’s Aid Federation England and Welsh Women’s Aid shows that despite changes to the list of evidence introduced in April 2014, nearly 40% of women affected by violence do not have the required forms of evidence and 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. Nearly 60% of women responding to the 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. Emma Scott, Director of Rights of Women, said: “Although legal aid remains to place for some family law cases, still too many women affected by violence are being denied legal advice and representation in family cases because they do not have formal forms of evidence of the violence they have experienced in order to apply for legal aid and even if they do the ongoing risks to them do not disappear after two years. The changes to the legal aid scheme introduced in April 2013 have had a devastating impact on women’s ability to secure safe and independent futures for themselves and their children. Our ongoing research shows that the domestic violence gateways have created a barrier to family law legal aid and to access to justice for women. We know that nearly half of women affected by domestic violence do not have the required forms of evidence to apply for family law legal aid. As a result the majority of those women tell us that they took no legal action as a result, leaving them at risk of further violence and even death. This legal action is taken on behalf of those women in order to hold the government to account on their promise to continue to make family law legal aid available to victims of domestic violence. Law Society President Andrew Caplen said: “Legal aid is a lifeline for victims of abuse, enabling them to escape from violent relationships, protect their children, and manage their financial situations. Access to family law remedies is vital in these cases. The statistics are stark; two women are killed each week by a current or former partner and 500 recent victims of domestic violence commit suicide every year. The over-strict tests required 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 being forced to face their perpetrators in court without legal representation. Victims of domestic violence should not be excluded from accessing legal aid for family law disputes against an abusive ex partner or relative because of these unrealistic regulations”. The full report can be found here: Evidencing domestic violence: reviewing the amended regulations http://rightsofwomen.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Evidencing-domestic-violence-IV.pdf

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