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Court deals blow to rights of domestic violence survivors to access justice

Date:22 JAN 2015
Rights of Women

The High Court today rejected a legal challenge over the lawfulness of Government changes to legal aid for domestic violence victims.
Legal aid is a lifeline for victims of abuse, enabling them to escape from abusive relationships, protect their children, and manage their financial situations. Access to justice 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.

Legal aid changes, introduced by the Government in April 2013 include regulations which set out what evidence victims of domestic violence have to provide to get legal aid for family cases. This evidence can be extremely difficult for many people to get and in many cases is subject to a 24-month time limit – although perpetrators may remain a life long threat to their victims.

The Law Society supported a challenge brought by the Public Law Project on behalf of Rights of Women, over the lawfulness of these changes, which are preventing victims of domestic abuse from getting legal aid, even when it is clear there has been violence, or there is an ongoing risk of violence. Rights of Women argued that this was not what Parliament intended.

In a deeply disappointing judgment, the Divisional Court dismissed Rights of Women’s claim, finding that the Secretary of State for Justice acted within his powers in making the regulations.

Emma Scott, Director of Rights of Women, said:

'On behalf of the women who continue to be denied access to justice by the legal aid regulations we are devastated by the outcome of our legal challenge. This decision means that women who remain at risk of violence will continue to be denied access to vital legal advice and representation in family cases. Our most recent research shows that about 40% of women affected by violence do not have the required evidence in order to apply for family law legal aid. We are applying for permission to appeal the decision and remain committed to campaigning on this issue in order to hold the government to account on their promise to continue to make legal aid available to victims of domestic violence.'
Law Society President Andrew Caplen expressed his disappointment at the ruling:

'This change, introduced by the Government, is yet another example of the draconian cuts affecting vulnerable clients. The over-strict tests required to bring evidence to satisfy the broader statutory meaning of domestic violence are not what parliament intended.

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.'
Speaking of the ruling, Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said:

'Restrictions on legal aid have become restrictions on justice for victims of domestic abuse. The Divisional Court decision today leaves in place legal aid reforms that have had a silencing effect on people speaking out about an abusive relationship. When the justice system should support victims of abuse coming forward it is instead putting up a barrier right at the start.

The kinds of evidence currently required for victims to get legal aid are not practical, putting at risk attempts to separate from an abuser and safeguard children. Obtaining the evidence in cases of emotional or financial abuse can be almost impossible. Nine in ten advisers we surveyed had helped someone with financial abuse, such as controlling their day to day spending or forcing them into debt. The Government has made an encouraging commitment to tackling all forms of domestic abuse that it must now see through by making legal aid available to all of these victims.'

The Law Society has backed the Public Law Project because access to family law remedies is vital in these cases. We will continue to lobby Parliament to make changes to ensure the victims of abuse can get the help they need.