Legal aid update – Victory for survivors of domestic abuse as legal aid win comes into force

From Rights of Women – February 3rd, 2021

From today, victims and survivors of domestic abuse who were previously denied access to legal aid will no longer be asked to sell their homes to access safety from abuse and justice.

Due to the unrealistic rules relating to legal aid eligibility, women who were unable to afford legal representation were forced to face their abusers alone, in court.

The legislation, which comes into effect today (28 January 2021), removes the cap on mortgage allowance when assessing someone’s financial eligibility. This means that ‘imaginary capital’ will now be assessed properly: as debt.

The legislation comes into force following a High Court ruling, in December last year, which closed a legal loophole in the rules about ‘trapped capital’ that prevented a survivor of domestic abuse, a single mother who had just £28 in her bank at the time, access to legal aid.

Women’s rights charity, Rights of Women, frequently receive calls to their ‘family law advice line’ from victims and survivors of domestic abuse who have been denied access to legal aid despite having no money to afford representation in court.

One of Rights of Women’s callers, Maria*, a single mother who fled her abusive husband and was living on universal credit, was denied legal aid and told to sell her home to pay for legal advice to keep herself and her children safe. Unable to sell her home, which would have left herself and her children homeless, Maria had no choice but to represent herself in court. 

Speaking of her ordeal, Maria* said:

“It was very stressful. I was caring for my children and trying to go here and there and managing all these papers. I don’t know what my rights are. I can only tell the judge what I know but I don’t know when to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no’. When the case started, my partner got an order and I didn’t know how he did that and I didn’t have a lawyer to find out. The court removed the order, but I don’t think it would have started like that if I had a lawyer. When both people know what to do it is fair but when he knew what he was doing and I didn’t, it felt like they could squeeze me and I just had to say ‘yes’. You feel you can’t speak up.”

Olive Craig, Senior Legal Officer at Rights of Women, said:

“We frequently speak to women experiencing domestic abuse, some who have had to resort to food banks to feed their children, who have been denied access to legal aid by a system deliberately designed to make it harder for applicants to be granted legal aid, a system which ignores the lived realities of many women experiencing domestic abuse. You should not have to sell your home, and make yourself and your children homeless, to be eligible to access justice and safety. This vital legislation will help many more women access the legal support and protections they desperately need to live free from violence and abuse.”

*Case study and quote is shared with the consent of the survivor, and names have been altered to prevent identification.

For more information see our updated legal guidance, available here.

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