New laws came into effect in January 2018 that abolished time limits and relaxed the evidence needed to access Legal Aid for those who have suffered because of domestic violence. In December 2017 the Ministry of Justice reviewed the restrictive eligibility criteria for Legal Aid, which as it stood saw a number of genuine victims lose out on vital support.
Since April 2013, Legal Aid has only been available if clients seeking advice in respect of family law matters could provide evidence of either domestic abuse or child abuse from the 24 month period immediately preceding their application for Legal Aid. Many people could not provide this evidence without legal representation and so often missed out on the service. If eligible, they could either get free advice or would need to pay a minimum contribution to legal fees, depending on their financial means.
These changes came into effect when the Legal Services Commission was replaced by the Legal Aid Agency and we saw significant cuts to assisted legal representation with the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012.
Since its introduction, the criteria was relaxed slightly to allow evidence from a period of five years prior to be acceptable, but many still did not meet the stringent criteria. The common pitfalls were that the abuse happened more than five years ago, or people could not locate the type of evidence needed to satisfy the Legal Aid format. These difficulties meant that victims of domestic violence often had to face their abuser in stressful court proceedings without the advice, assistance and support of a legal representative.
Now, following the government’s review, victims of domestic violence will not be subject to any time limits concerning evidence and the type of evidence they can provide in support of their claim has been widened. The Legal Aid Agency can now also accept statements from domestic violence support organisations and housing support officers in addition to the evidence previously accepted. This will help to overcome the hurdles vulnerable people already face and will hopefully mean a greater access to justice.
Justice Minister Dominic Raab stated: “We have listened to the 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”.
This change was announced amidst changes in the way courts are to treat applications concerning child arrangements. With the widening of the definition of domestic abuse and the courts also having to consider the impact of ordering contact between a child and parent upon all involved, there has been a clear acknowledgement of the prevalence of domestic abuse within an increasing number of families and a need for change.
An estimated 1.9 million adults aged 16 to 59 years experienced domestic abuse in the last year, according to the year ending March 2017 Crime Survey for England, which shows a rising trend year-on-year. There is a common misconception that only women are victims of domestic abuse. Whilst the majority of reported incidents have involved female victims (70% between April 2013 and March 2016), the prevalence of domestic violence with male victims is likely to be underreported.*
If you have previously been denied Legal Aid, we would advise that you contact one of our approachable family law specialists. We will work with you to understand your situation and can advise whether you may now be eligible for Legal Aid under the newly relaxed criteria. Legal Aid can provide you with assistance in relation to divorce, matrimonial finances, child arrangements and non-molestation orders.
If you’d like support to access Legal Aid and have been a victim of domestic violence, get in touch with Amy Holloway (0121 289 3745) or Hannah Rainsford (0121 685 1234) in our family law team.
*Statistics obtained from the Office of National Statistics