Family law expert, district judge and partner at Coodes Solicitors, Ian Taylor, looks at how Legal Aid changes are impacting those who need it most
For many people the week commencing Monday, November 25 was just another a normal week. There is a week less left on the calendar until Christmas helping to increase the panic many of us feel when trying to decide what presents to buy a loved one or the family. Christmas light switch-ons, lantern parades, chances to meet Father Christmas and see his reindeers, while on TV the John Lewis and Coca Cola adverts are in full flow.
Many people, however, will not get to fully enjoy the festivities this year and for them the week commencing November 25 was a way to highlight the problems they face. If it passed you by then November 25 to 29 was Domestic Abuse Awareness Week. The main focus this year was the ‘Is It Safe’ campaign, which had the aim of highlighting the fact that everything you do online leaves a trace. This has lead to growing problems of cyberstalking, which itself can be linked to domestic abuse.
While it is good to make people aware of these issues as more and more of our life goes online, there is still one big issue around people gaining domestic violence support and that is their ability to access Legal Aid. Despite drastic cuts earlier this year and what has been reported, Legal Aid is still available to victims of domestic abuse.
On April 1 this year the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012 brought in wide ranging changes whereby Legal Aid for all matters except injunctions and public law is only available where the domestic violence gateway is crossed. However, evidencing domestic violence is now becoming a real barrier to family law Legal Aid.
Research undertaken by Rights of Women with Women’s Aid England and Welsh Women’s Aid have found that the new regulations are restricting access to support for women whom the Government has expressly sought to protect from the removal of family law from the scope of Legal Aid.
The key findings from the research found that:
- Half of all women who had experienced or experiencing domestic violence did not have the prescribed forms of evidence to access family law Legal Aid.
- 16.7% of respondents to our survey had to pay over £50 to obtain copies of the required evidence.
- 37.5% of respondents had to wait longer than two weeks to get copies of their evidence.
- 60.5% of respondents took no action in relation to their family law problems as a result of not being able to apply for Legal Aid.
- 23.7% paid a solicitor privately and 15.8% represented themselves at court.
The prescribed evidence that people need to provide in order to qualify for support can be, for example, either a letter from a person appointed to chair a multi-agency risk assessment conference, a letter from a health professional, a letter from a social services department or a letter or report from a domestic violence support organisation. There are also specific forms of evidence to support applications involving children.
The results of the survey carried out by Rights of Women, Women’s Aid England and Welsh Women’s Aid appear to show that accessing the above evidence does appear to be difficult for people looking for support. As a result the Legal Aid Agency, which provides both civil and criminal Legal Aid and advice in England and Wales, has issued revised guidance on acceptable evidence of domestic abuse, which acts as a gateway to Legal Aid advice representation in respect of divorce, children and finance issues.
However, the guidance makes the point that because the forms of evidence are prescribed by regulation there is no discretion to accept other forms of evidence or for the requirement to be waived in particular cases. Any applicant must satisfy one of the prescribed evidence requirements. One helpful point is that the revised guidance states clearly that where an ex-parte order is granted the client is still eligible for Legal Aid because they were granted a protective injunction in the previous 24 months, even if the respondent disputes the allegations at a subsequent hearing, and the order subsequently fails.
While this might put people off trying to get help the key message is that if you are experiencing domestic violence then seek help immediately from a support agency or a suitably qualified solicitor who will be able to guide you in the right way when it comes to accessing Legal Aid. It is available to those who need it most.