Government Defeated - Access to Justice for Victims of Domestic Violence
After the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) there were drastic changes for family Legal Aid, in particular the requirement of evidence of domestic violence to qualify for Legal Aid in private proceedings.
It was not sufficient that victims of domestic violence
had suffered in an abusive relationship they were required to prove it to qualify for Legal Aid. Victims, or the preferably term survivors, of domestic violence were asked to obtain evidence such as written confirmation of cautions and convictions and letters from GP’s confirming injuries. There was also a time limit placed on this evidence and anything over 2 years old was not taken into account.
These restrictive requirements posed a problem to survivors of domestic violence and their access to Legal Aid. Rights of Women, a women’s rights charity which aims to empower women through legal advice and information, reported that approximately 40% of female survivors of domestic violence did not have any of the required evidence and therefore did not qualify for Legal Aid. It was also highlighted that women who did have the required evidence had problems accessing this evidence and had to pay or wait long periods of time. Providing this evidence was particularly hard for those who had been abused emotionally, psychologically and financially as their injuries were less apparent or had not been reported. Overall, the requirements imposed by LASPO were seen as not only restricting access to Legal Aid but access to justice for those who had suffered domestic violence.
Rights of Women took action and in January 2015 challenged the decisions made in LASPO regarding Legal Aid in family matters
. Rights of Women were represented by the Public Law Project
, an independent legal charity which aims to improve access to justice, and supported by the Law Society in taking this action. Initially, the decision was upheld and requirements for evidence of domestic violence remained the same. Rights of Women, although disappointed, further challenged the decision and appealed. Rights of Women’s second attempt was more successful and it was accepted that changes needed to be made to the LASPO criteria.
It was decided that from 25th April 2016, the time limit in relation to evidence of domestic violence will be extended from 2 years to 5 years. In addition, provisions for the assessment of financial abuse will be introduced. The changes were to be implemented expeditiously so that survivors of domestic violence can benefit from these changes as soon as possible.The changes to LASPO are seen as a victory amongst those who have suffered domestic violence and those who have campaigned on their behalf. The extension of the time limit and inclusion of financial abuse will make Legal Aid more accessible to survivors of domestic violence. This means that more survivors of domestic violence will have a chance to present and defend their family cases with legal representation. The bigger picture of course is that with better access to legal representation, survivors of domestic violence will have better access to justice.