5-Year Time Limit On Legal Aid For Domestic Abuse Victims To Be Scrapped
The Law Of… making legal aid more accessible
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is removing the 5-year time limit that prevents victims of domestic violence from being granted legal aid for court proceedings, as well as expanding the pool of evidence that they can provide.
Carol Chrisfield, Associate in Family Law, explains how the removal of this time limit on legal aid is going to change victims' lives for the better.
Accepting More Evidence
Previously, victims of domestic violence who wished to apply for legal aid for family court proceedings had to prove that they had been the victim of abuse within the past 5 years.
To be eligible, regulations made it compulsory for victims to have specific evidence that could support their claims, such as a letter from a medical professional, an injunction, a conviction against the perpetrator, or a letter from social services.
But, other forms of evidence will be now accepted, including:
- Statements given by organisations working with the victims will be accepted as evidence of risk
- Letters from solicitors
- Information collected from housing officers
Restricting Access To Justice
Ever since the former justice secretary, Chris Grayling, introduced restrictions on access to legal representation in 2012 as a way of cutting costs charities, groups, and organisations working with victims of domestic violence have campaigned to have them removed.
The charity Rights of Women has also challenged the restricted regulations in the Court of Appeal on several occasions. One of the harrowing cases heard by the Court involved a woman who had been raped and beaten by her former husband being denied legal aid for a court hearing where he was trying to spend time with their children.
An abused wife who wanted to stop her husband from being able to go to the schools of her children and another woman who applied to have her abusive marriage annulled were further examples given to the Court of when the restrictions had failed extremely vulnerable parties.
Issues with the restrictions on legal aid for victims were also outlined by the Commons justice select committee in 2015. In its report, the committee revealed that one third of victims of domestic violence couldn't provide the evidence needed to qualify for legal aid.
In 2016, the time limit of evidence of domestic abuse or risk of domestic abuse was extended by the MoJ from 2 to 5 years.
The decision to remove the restrictions on legal aid for victims follows the prime minister's speech in February, where she confirmed that the Government is launching a consultation on the treatment of victims of domestic violence and the support available to them.
Removing the time limit and expanding the evidence that will be accepted in family courts will also be beneficial for the women and men who were previously unable to access legal advice and representation in child disputes.
"Costs, Time, And Most Importantly, Lives Will Be Saved"
The Law Society and organisations working with victims of domestic, such as the charity Rights of Women and the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, have all welcomed the changes.
"This is both a victory for women and also for common sense", Estelle du Boulay, the Director of Rights of Women, said.
"The purpose of Legal Aid is to ensure everyone in society can equally access safety and justice through the law", she continued.
"The current rules are so restrictive that they fail to assist a large number of victims – the majority of whom are women. Our evidence showed that up to 40% of women could not meet the requirements. We are hopeful that these changes signal a renewed commitment from the government to address the broader landscape of domestic violence provision more proactively."
Describing the Government's decision to remove the restrictions as "sensible", the Co-Chair of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, Jenny Beck said that this move would "enable efficient and targeted legal advice and representation to be given to those most in need."
"Costs, time, and most importantly, lives will be saved. A sensible dialogue to understand the real picture at the coal face has allowed some joined up thinking here which will save both the tax payer and society in general."
Family courts are also expected to introduce another change that will minimise the suffering experienced by victims of domestic abuse when giving evidence.
Under the original rules, victims who provided pre-recorded video testimonies of their experiences in criminal cases weren't allowed to also use this as evidence in the family courts. Instead, they were forced to relive their terrifying experiences by providing the court with fresh evidence.
Following the Government's change to the restrictions, existing video testimonies can now be used in court.
"This is good news for the many victims of domestic abuse who in the past have been denied access to justice simply because they haven't been able to meet unfair requirements."
"The evidential restrictions required to obtain legal aid has caused significant problems. For example, some evidence can only be obtained by paying a fee, which for some people is not always affordable. The problem is that without this evidence, they couldn’t get legal aid."
"In my experience, some domestic violence cases can run for years and therefore evidence obtained within the 5-year time limit might 'expire' and then not be accepted if funding needed to be extended. It is also the case that some victims did not issue court proceedings within the 5-year time limit, or the perpetrator may apply after the time limit has expired, meaning that the evidence wouldn't be acceptable for the purposes of legal aid."
"Without these restrictions in place, more victims of abuse may come forward and get the justice that they deserve."