A couple of days ago I posted about how government policies can have unintended consequences, particularly in relation to the recent changes to legal aid. It didn’t take long to come across what may be another example.
The Association of Lawyers for Children has published the results of research by the voluntary organisation Rights of Women into the impact of new regulations setting out the criteria for domestic violence victims to obtain legal aid. Since 1 April 2013, legal aid for private law family matters (i.e. not involving a local authority) has only generally been available where there has been domestic violence.
The regulations set out a list of ten forms of evidence of the domestic violence or the risk of domestic violence, at least one of which must be provided by the victim in order for them to apply for legal aid. Examples of the evidence required are:
- An unspent criminal conviction against the abuser for a domestic violence related criminal offence;
- A non-molestation/occupation/forced marriage/restraining order against the abuser which is in force or was made in the past 2 years;
- Evidence from a doctor, nurse or midwife that they examined the victim within the past 2 years about an injury or condition she had as a result of domestic violence; and
- Evidence from a women’s refuge that the victim stayed there for more than 24 hours in the past 2 years.
The research, which surveyed women victims of domestic violence who were trying to obtain legal aid for a family matter, found that the regulations are restricting their access to legal aid. Key findings of the research were that:
- Half of all women who had experienced or were experiencing domestic violence did not have the prescribed forms of evidence to access family law legal aid;
- 16.7% of respondents to the survey had to pay over £50 to obtain copies of the required evidence;
- 37.5% of respondents had to wait longer than 2 weeks to get copies of their evidence;
- 60.5% of respondents took no action in relation to their problem as a result of not being able to apply for legal aid;
- 23.7% paid a solicitor privately; and
- 15.8% represented themselves at court.
The effect of not having legal aid in circumstances where there has been domestic violence can of course be devastating: the risk of further abuse, not being able to pursue a legal right, delay, unaffordable expense and having to face up to an abuser in court without representation. Here is a typical comment from one respondent to the survey:
“This has given my husband even greater control over me and now I feel completely at his mercy… My husband thanks the government from the bottom of his heart for allowing him to carry out his entrapment with confidence in knowing that his wife can’t do a dam thing about it, as she’s stuck in no man’s land.”
As victims of domestic violence, the respondents to the survey are the very people whom the Government had expressly sought to protect from the removal of family law from the scope of legal aid. Clearly, as a result of the obstacle created by the regulations the Government has failed in that aim.
Another example of the law of unintended consequences? Of course, the uncharitable view is that the Government knew exactly what it was doing and purposely raised the bar as high as possible, to restrict access to legal aid and therefore keep the legal aid bill down. Personally, I wouldn’t suggest such a thing…