On 1 April 2013 a host of family and civil law cases were removed from the scope of Legal Aid under the terms of LASPO 2012 (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012). In family law, this means that legal help is no longer available for private family law matters such as divorce, other than those cases where domestic violence is proven within the past two years.
LASPO has preserved legal aid for victims of domestic violence who are seeking protective court orders against the perpetrator, the intention being to stop those who may be vulnerable to intimidation within legal proceedings being forced to represent themselves.
Domestic violence can be one incident or a pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour. This is not just physical but can be psychological, sexual, financial or emotional abuse.
However Rights of Women, who are a specialist women’s organisation have recently challenged the cuts to the legal aid system, claiming that even victims of domestic abuse are being prevented from accessing Legal Aid. They argue that even in cases where domestic violence is apparent or where there is an ongoing risk of domestic violence, women are being denied access to the family justice system under the new law. Other bodies such as The Law Society have also supported this cause.
The main complaint is that the eligibility requirements are too rigid and narrow when setting out what can be used as evidence of domestic violence. So what constitutes evidence of domestic violence?
To name a few it may be an unspent conviction of domestic violence, a police caution, a protective injunction from a court, a court order or evidence of relevant police bail. A letter from a multi-agency risk assessment conference, health professional, social services or domestic violence support organisation may also suffice. However, an absolute time limit of twenty-four months applies with no room for discretion.
Rights of Women has raised concerns with the requirement of evidence on the basis that it is virtually impossible for those who are at risk of domestic violence but have not yet suffered, to obtain the required evidence. Financial abuse and controlling or coercive behaviour do not appear to have been provided for at all. It appears that only evidence which has come to the attention of the courts or statutory agencies can be relied upon and there is no discretion for the Legal Aid Agency to accept evidence which is not in the prescribed form.
Rights of Women claim that their research highlights that 40% of women who are affected by domestic violence do not have the required evidence they need to access Legal Aid.
The Law Society have added that the change to the Legal Aid cuts is yet another example of the draconian cuts affecting vulnerable clients.
Overall, without the necessary access to Legal Aid, victims of domestic violence are being forced to face their perpetrators in court without legal representation. For some this terrifying ordeal will mean they are forced to remain silent and in relationships where domestic violence may be occurring on a daily basis.