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Strict evidential rules place domestic abuse victims at risk

Access to justice for vulnerable women is still being denied, latest findings show

26 January 2016

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More than one in three domestic abuse victims do not have the prescribed form of evidence to claim legal aid, new figures show.

The charity Rights of Women estimate that some 1.2 million women experience domestic violence every year, and in its report found that the government's evidence criteria continues to prove a barrier for women affected by violence trying to access legal aid, despite restrictions being loosened in 2015.

'Our research has consistently shown that nearly half of women affected by domestic violence do not have the required forms of evidence to apply for family law legal aid and that more than half of those women tell us that they take no legal action as a result,' said Emma Scott, director of Rights of Women.

Some 37 per cent of respondents to the survey who had experienced domestic violence did not have the prescribed forms of evidence. These women, the report said, were then faced with a choice of either paying for a solicitor, representing themselves in court, or do nothing and risk further violence.

Over half of respondents took no action as a result of not being able to apply for legal aid. Some 29 per cent paid a solicitor privately, while 28 per cent represented themselves at court.

The figures come ahead of this week's Court of Appeal hearing, which will decide whether a High Court ruling on the lawfulness of government changes to legal aid should be overturned.

'We continue this legal action on behalf of those women in order to hold the government to account on their promise to make family law legal aid available to victims of domestic violence,' added Scott.

The Law Society's president, Jonathan Smithers, has expressed concern that perpetrators may remain a life-long threat to their victims due to evidence of abuse being subject to a 24-month time limit.

'Legal aid is a lifeline for victims of abuse,' he said. 'This new data shows that access to safety and justice is still being denied to the very people the government expressly sought to protect with its amendments to the regulations.'

Smithers commented that parliament did not intend for 'harsh tests requiring people to bring evidence to satisfy the broader statutory meaning of domestic violence', adding that legal aid is often the only way for victims to bring their case before the courts.

'Without legal aid women are unable to access family law remedies, which are vital in order to help them escape from violent relationships and protect their children,' said Smithers. 'They are being forced to face their perpetrators in court without legal representation.'

A spokesperson for the MoJ said: 'We are determined to ensure victims of domestic violence can get legal aid whenever they need it.

'We have made it easier for victims of domestic violence to obtain legal aid, by ensuring a broader range of evidence qualifies. This has contributed to a 19 per cent rise in the number of grants awarded.

'We have also made sure that once legal aid is granted, it remains available for the duration of the case.'

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Divorce