In April 2013, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) came into force and, consequently, many people have found themselves without access to family legal aid. One group of people – who were supposed to remain protected and still have access to the public purse for legal representation in family proceedings – were victims of domestic violence (the word “violence” encompassing various forms of abuse). For those victims, eligibility for legal aid in family matters is subject to the provision of evidence in a prescribed form, for example, a letter from a health professional or social services and a financial means test.
On the face of it, the required evidence may seem like a realistic expectation; however, the prescribed form of evidence presupposes that a victim of domestic violence will have sought a specific type of help within the past two years. This is not always the reality. The two-year time limit has also proved contentious, as some victims may be at risk for many years, even a lifetime.
Legal aid for domestic violence
A domestic violence charity, Rights of Women, have recently released a report suggesting that, despite amendments to the regulations in 2014, as many as 40% of domestic violence victims are unable to provide the prescribed form of evidence and, therefore, remain at risk. Without this evidence, they are unable to seek family legal aid and take steps through the family courts to protect themselves (and sometimes their families) from the perpetrator. Many victims are unable to afford to pay a solicitor privately and, without legal representation, will likely come face-to-face with their abuser in court if they initiate court proceedings. The alternative is to do nothing and remain at risk. The number of women who experience domestic violence each year is reported as being 1.2 million. Of course, men can also be domestic violence victims.
Court of Appeal
If nearly half of the victims of domestic violence are struggling to produce the evidence to get family legal aid, something is clearly wrong. We eagerly await the pending Court of Appeal’s decision on the legality of the legal aid system for victims of domestic violence. Maybe it’s time for reform?
For more information on family law matters, contact our Family Law specialists.