Court deals blow to rights of domestic violence survivors to access justice
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.”
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.
Notes to editors
- Rights of Women are supported by the Law Society
- Counsel in this case are Nathalie Lieven QC and Zoe Leventhal of Landmark Chambers
The Public Law Project (PLP)
PLP is an independent, national legal charity which aims to improve access to justice for those whose access is restricted by poverty, discrimination or other similar barriers. To fulfil its objectives PLP undertakes research, policy initiatives, casework and training across the range of public law remedies.
Rights of Women
Rights of Women is a registered charity that provides free legal advice to women and engages on a policy level concerning access to justice and violence against women issues. We provide training on legal issues to statutory and third sector professionals, write legal publications designed to assist individual women, and those supporting them, through the law and provide three legal advice lines offering legal advice to women on immigration and asylum issues, sexual violence and criminal law, and family law (including domestic violence, divorce, contact disputes). Our advice lines are staffed by qualified practising women solicitors and barristers. More information about our work can be found at www.rightsofwomen.org.uk
For further information contact Emma Scott, email@example.com Tel. 020 7251 6575/07970 868 259
The Law Society
The Law Society is the independent professional body, established for solicitors in 1825, that works globally to support and represent its members, promoting the highest professional standards and the rule of law.
Law Society Press Office
020 7320 5764