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Victims of Domestic Violence Struggling For Legal Aid

Restrictions on the legal aid budget for domestic abuse victims were introduced 18 months ago as part of a wide scale plan to cut the budget by £215 million by 2018-19.

Domestic Abuse has been at the forefront of media headlines recently with reports of sweeping police failures in handling cases to the closure of specialist refuges because cuts and now the limitation of legal aid funding for victims.

At the beginning of September 2014 the Law Society held an Access to Justice day, aimed at advocating a review by policymakers of the Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) and removing the limitations on the ability of victims of domestic violence to seek legal assistance.

Andrew Caplen, the Law Society President, states that: “It's not that legal aid is not available, but it's harder to get it". Caplen plans to make removing the obstacles a priority of the Law Society in its campaign to amend these funding restrictions.

Other interest groups have voiced concerns over the ability of victims to have access to justice, with campaign group Rights for Women becoming involved. The group released a statement saying that introduction of changes in legal aid in April 2013 by the government require victims to provide a prescribed form of evidence. As such, many are unable to provide the evidence required to qualify for funds and therefore take no legal action and remain at risk for further violence and even death.

New Regulations for Domestic Abuse

LASPO, which came into effect across England and Wales in April 2013, removed almost all private family law areas from access to civil legal aid.

Domestic Violence is named as an exception to this rule; however, the exception is valid only under strict “evidential” eligibility requirements and additional conditions attached.

These requirements include that victims produce “evidence” that they have domestically abused. The list of approved evidence includes a letter from a GP, time spent at a refuge or proof that a place was needed but none was available, and verification that an abusive partner has a conviction or is on bail. Caplen raises points on a number of these evidential requirements, such as that victims of domestic violence frequently don't report their abuse due to shame or fear, meaning documentation such as a letter from a GP proving their abuse is simply unreasonable to expect. Indeed, research produced by Rights of Woman Women's Aid and Women's Aid Wales, for the year following the introduction of LASPO, found that 43% of victims asked reported not having the prescribed documentation required to successfully apply for legal aid, thus not even being consult a lawyer.

Further, those who have experienced abuse must prove that there are injuries or a condition consistent with a victim of domestic abuse within 24 months of making a legal aid application. Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Woman’s Aid, says that victims often take years to come forward and that such a time limit shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of coercion and control domestic violence has over an extended period of time.

Additionally, more than £300million is to be removed from the total civil legal aid budget by 2014-15, which means that fewer experts will be available for victims to seek help from.

Future for Domestic Abuse Legal Aid Claims

There have been various challenges to the LASPO restrictions, the Public Law Project and Rights of Woman supported by the Law Society brought a challenge to the legality of the reforms on the basis of the evidential criteria. Its judicial review is currently making its way through the courts.

The Justice Minister, Shailesh Vara, has backed claims by the Ministry of Justice that they have addressed many of the concerns highlighted and that the UK’s legal aid budget remains “one of the most generous in the world”. Vara said that since making further changes in April [2014] it is now easier for people to access the evidence they need to bring a family law legal aid case.

Despite this claim groups continue to oppose the government’s extensive cuts to the budget, contesting that the current restrictive rules on “proof” of domestic abuse cannot be overstated.

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