New rules removing time limit and allowing admission of fresh categories of evidence will come into force in January
Time limits preventing victims of domestic violence from obtaining legal aid for court hearings will be scrapped from January, the Ministry of Justice has announced.
The heavily criticised restrictions, which have resulted in large numbers of women confronting abusive ex-partners without representation, will also be relaxed to accept evidence from victim support organisations.
The changes deliver on signals that the system would be reformed given by the MoJ and revealed by the Guardian earlier this year.
Confirming the new guidelines for the Legal Aid Agency, the justice minister, Dominic Raab, said: “We have listened to victims’ groups and carefully reviewed the criteria for legal aid for victims of domestic abuse in family cases.
“These changes make sure that vulnerable women and children get legal support so their voice is properly heard in court.”
Legal aid has usually been available to victims of domestic violence and child abuse, or those deemed at risk, as long as they could provide evidence of abuse within the past five years.
Removal of the five-year limit and admission of fresh categories of evidence will help large numbers of women and some men who have been deprived of legal advice and representation in family court disputes over custody and contact with children.
The narrow evidence requirements were first imposed under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (Laspo) Act of 2012. The MoJ has launched a broader, formal review of the impact of the legislation on access to justice.
The new regulations will be detailed in a statutory instrument put before parliament this week.
Statements from domestic violence support organisations and housing support officers will in future be accepted as evidence of past abuse, as well as those from social services, law enforcement agencies and medical professionals.
Earlier this year the government announced a £17m fund to support 41 projects across the country to tackle violence against women and girls.
Steve Hynes, the director of the Legal Action Group who has campaigned against legal aid cuts, welcomed the change: “It’s taken a long time because of the general election and other delays. I’m very pleased they have made the announcement.
“They realised it’s a priority. It wasn’t working. Women who experienced domestic violence were not qualifying [for representation]. The amount of civil legal aid granted has fallen by 80% since Laspo was introduced.”
Elspeth Thomson, chair of the legal aid committee at the family law organisation Resolution, said: “We’ve been calling for changes to the evidence gateway since Laspo was implemented in 2013 and welcome this news. Parliament has committed to protect victims of domestic abuse so ministers have a duty to ensure that those who need legal aid are able to access it.
“These changes, made in consultation with Resolution and others, are a step in the right direction, allowing the justice system to better support at-risk and vulnerable people at perhaps the most difficult time of their lives – when the family unit is breaking down.
“Ultimately, these are real people, not statistics, and we must protect them and their access to the justice system.”
Estelle du Boulay, the director of the Rights of Women, said: “The changes … will make a significant difference to women experiencing or at risk of domestic abuse to access legal aid in private family law cases.
“The previous system was so clearly unjust, leaving many genuine survivors unable to access the legal aid they were entitled to, because the evidence requirements were narrow, onerous and unrealistic.
“We fought the government through the courts to bring in these reforms. We are particularly grateful to the many women survivors who provided testimony that enabled us to prove our case. Their voices have finally been listened to today.”
Cris McCurley, a family law lawyer at the law firm Ben Hoare Bell who has sat on the independent advisory group helping the MOJ throughout the review process, said: “In spite of the UN convention on the elimination of discrimination against women committee ruling that the [UK] government had to urgently review and ensure victims of violence would get legal aid for private family law proceedings in October 2013, these changes have only come about as a result of the hard work, dedication and courage of Rights of Women in pursuing their case against the MOJ on domestic violence eligibility for legal aid all the way to the court of appeal.”
The president of the Law Society of England and Wales, Joe Egan, said: “Legal aid is a lifeline for those who have suffered abuse. It is often the only way someone can bring their case before the courts. Today’s positive decision is the end result of work the Law Society and other organisations have been doing with the MoJ for many months.”
Sophie Walker, the leader of the Women’s Equality party, said:“The Ministry of Justice’s decision to lift these damaging restrictions on legal aid is welcome – and long overdue.
“Too many women have been denied justice over the last seven years as a result of the government’s short-sighted cuts.”
Source: The Guardian