High Court to decide whether victims of domestic violence should have access to legal aid – 12 December 2014

The High Court will today hear 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.

Today’s 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 today 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.

At 9.30 on Friday morning, Rights of Women, along with other domestic violence charities including Women’s Aid, will be hosting a demonstration outside the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand to help raise awareness of the impact the legal aid cuts are having on women affected by violence.

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.”

Summary of findings:

The full report can be found here. This report demonstrates that the domestic violence evidence criteria continues to prove a barrier to accessing family law legal aid for women affected by violence.

  • 38% of women responding to the survey who had experienced or were experiencing domestic violence did not have the prescribed forms of evidence to access family law legal aid.
  • 23% of women responding would have had one or more of the prescribed forms of evidence if the two year time limit on those forms of evidence was not in place.
  • One of the most common forms of evidence now includes one of the new forms of evidence; referral to a domestic violence support organisation by a health professional (20%).
  • 75% of respondents said it was difficult (40.7%) or very difficult (34.3%) to find a legal aid solicitor in their area.
  • 33% of respondents were having to travel between 5 and 15 miles to find a legal aid solicitor. 23% had to travel more than 15 miles.
  • 58% of respondents took no action in relation to their family law problem as a result of not being able to apply for legal aid. 26% paid a solicitor privately and 26% represented themselves at court.

Ends

Notes to editors

  1. Rights of Women are supported by the Law Society,
  2. For further information contact Emma Scott, emma@row.org.uk Tel  0207 251 6575/ 07970 868 259
  3. Counsel in this case are Zoe Leventhal and Nathalie Lieven of Landmark Chambers

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

About 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.

Contact

Law Society Press office: 0207 320 5902

 

 
 
 

Contact us at:


Rights of Women,
52-54 Featherstone Street,
London, EC1Y 8RT.
Administration: 020 7251 6575
Email: info@row.org.uk