Government expands legal aid eligibility
The new measures aim to further support the victims of domestic abuse
The Ministry of Justice announced the widening of the eligibility for legal aid on 25 May, as a result of the government’s £25 million pledge to boost the legal aid system every year. It is estimated that the changes will provide in excess of an additional 6 million people and families, including victims of domestic abuse victims and children, with to access funded legal support.
The changes mean that victims of domestic abuse on universal credit and seeking a protective order can access legal aid funding more easily without having to go through a means test. Changes to disputed or inaccessible assets will also benefit those living with their abuser, which will no longer be considered when assessing someone’s financial eligibility for aid. Victims of coercive control will also be eligible for legal help without needing to access funds from joint assets.
The new measures coincide with the publication of a progress report on improving responses to domestic abuse and safeguarding across the family justice system. The original report, from the expert panel on ‘Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases,’ identified serious failings in the family courts, including concerns over the impact on victims from lengthy courtroom battles and that allegations of domestic abuse were not being taken seriously. The progress report finds that the government has delivered a number of changes to better protect children and parents including: a ban on perpetrators cross-examining victims in court; automatic special measures for victims such as protective screens and giving evidence via video link; and clarifying the law on ‘barring orders’ to prevent perpetrators from bringing their former partners back to court.
The government is also set to introduce other measures in the next two years, including: free legal representation for anyone under the age of 18, as well as for parents challenging traumatic and difficult medical decisions; making everyone eligible for legal aid to defend themselves in the Crown Court, ensuring fair trials and ending the so-called ‘innocence tax’; and increasing the amount of income someone can receive before having to contribute to legal aid fees by over £3,000 for civil cases and over £12,000 for criminal cases in the magistrates’ court.
Commenting on the announcement, the President of the Law Society of England and Wales, Lubna Shuja, said: “Widening eligibility for civil and criminal legal aid is an important step in the right direction and something we have long been pushing for. Legal aid is a lifeline for people, usually living in poverty, to help them in moments of crisis such as when they are facing eviction or seeking protection from a violent partner for themselves and their children. Millions of extra people should now be able to receive free advice when they are facing life-changing legal problems.”