Getting advice and support for victims of domestic violenceby Jenny Beck
The government has taken steps to enable more victims of domestic abuse to access legal help so they can get the advice and legal support they need for themselves and their families.
The Story So Far . . . .
The snappily named ‘Legal Aid and Sentencing Punishment of Offenders Act’ (LASPOA) removed legal aid for private family law matters save in circumstances where there is evidence of domestic abuse or child abuse.
In order for individuals to access legal aid in these cases it has been necessary for them to pass through ‘the domestic violence gateway’ by producing evidence in a restrictively prescribed form of the abuse that they have experienced. The evidence requirements are laid out in the regulations.
The Legal Aid Practitioners Group has been campaigning from the outset to revisit the evidence required which is unduly restrictive and impractical. Our main concerns were:
- It reflects only physical abuse. Very little evidence would support emotional, psychological, financial abuse or coercive control.
- The ability to obtain the necessary evidence is difficult and random and often has a cost involved. Obtaining it is usually inconsistent with the lifestyle of the vast majority of victims fleeing domestic abuse.
- The evidence was time limited failing to recognise that the impact and risk associated with abuse can be lifelong.
As a consequence of the above, less than 50% of victims fleeing domestic abuse were able to access legal aid for assistance with private family law matters.
There was a slight widening of the domestic violence gateway via an agreement with the MOJ in 2014 to include a couple of additional categories of evidence. However it was not until the successful challenge through the judicial review brought by Rights of Women that the government agreed to revise the regulations to ensure the evidence requirements were sufficiently flexible to allow real victims to access services.
As part of this review, LAPG, The Law Society, Resolution and Rights of Women met regularly with the ever-changing team at the Ministry of Justice to identify the problem and propose effective solutions.
A comprehensive survey was undertaken of providers. There were 700 responses. In addition there were focus groups for both firms and victims. The findings were pretty overwhelmingly in support of what we had been arguing from the outset.
We set about working with the Ministry of Justice to try to find a better set of gateway rules. Unfortunately our attempts to suggest that we simply believed victims or that solicitors with appropriate accreditations be the gatekeepers did not find favour. However we were successful in securing 3 important changes which should ameliorate the problems to a significant degree. The key changes are as follows:
- The removal of the time limit;
- Evidence will now be acceptable from frontline domestic violence organisations;
- Evidence will be acceptable from housing support officers.
So What Is Next?
We have worked with The Law Society to develop a practice note for practitioners which is to be issued imminently. It will help bring the availability of legal help to many more.
The difficulty remains that the rates of pay for legal help work are so low that many providers simply cant afford to operate the service victims of abuse need.
We have had a significant victory with these evidential changes but, for victims of abuse and their families needing legal help, there is still quite a mountain to climb……
For more information contact Jenny on firstname.lastname@example.org