This week, the government introduced an amendment to legal aid rules in domestic violence cases.
The introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act in 2013 meant that legal aid was no longer available in the majority of family law cases. Exceptions include cases in which domestic violence has been a feature, but only if the complainant can prove the violence and it occurred within the last 24 months.
One side effect of the time limit was that some people who received legal aid could lose it if their case lasted for more than 24 months since the last proven incident. The evidence used to prove violence occurred would suddenly be considered ‘out of date’.
The government has now amended the rules so that people who secure legal aid do not lose it in the middle of a case. The move has been welcomed by the Law Society, who lobbied for the change to be made.
Law Society President Andrew Caplen said “this unconsidered technicality” had previously led to “serious injustice to some victims of abuse” so he was pleased it had now been fixed. However, he said there was more to be done:
“[T]he over-strict tests required by the regulations still mean some survivors are excluded from accessing legal aid for family law disputes against an abusive ex partner or relative.”
Family law organisation Resolution expressed a similar sentiment. Elspeth Thomson leads the group’s work on legal aid. It is great that the government has “made these much needed changes”, she said, but “we still have a long way to go”.
“Many domestic violence victims struggle to gather the evidence they need to get legal support and many more don’t even know that legal aid is still available.”
She called for “further changes to the criteria for granting legal aid in cases of domestic violence” so that the system will “support … victims rather than stand in their way”.
This echoed the complaints of campaign group Rights of Women, who unsuccessfully challenged the level of proof required in domestic violence cases earlier this year.