For reasons that will become apparent, this is going to be one of my shortest posts here, at least in terms of content written by me. However, it is an important issue that needs to be publicised.
The Ministry of Justice (‘MoJ’) is carrying out a survey on the evidence requirements for domestic violence victims seeking legal aid. The requirements were brought in as part of the last government’s efforts to reduce the legal aid budget, which included abolishing legal aid for most private law family matters, unless domestic violence was involved.
To explain what it is about, the survey begins with the following:
“The Ministry of Justice is currently reviewing the domestic violence evidence requirements for accessing legal aid in private family cases. We want to be confident that victims, or those at risk of domestic violence, are able to access legal aid and that the process for doing so is as straightforward as possible.
Legal aid is available for victims, or potential victims, of domestic violence in private family cases, such as those concerning child or financial arrangements following a relationship breakdown. To qualify for legal aid, applicants must prove they have been, or are at risk of being, a victim of domestic violence by submitting at least one form of evidence from a prescribed list set out in legislation. The evidence must come from some point during the period five years before the application for legal aid (increased from two years in April 2016). A few examples of the types of evidence accepted are as follows:
- a relevant unspent conviction for a domestic violence offence;
- a letter from a health professional who has examined the person and is satisfied that they had injuries or a condition consistent with being a victim of domestic violence;
- a Domestic Violence Protection Order.”
Unfortunately, I can’t take part in the survey myself, or say a lot that is relevant to it, as I am not practising and it is intended to be completed by people within organisations working with victims of domestic violence, in particular enquiring as to their experiences since the requirements were brought in.
However, I will say this…
Obviously, the government brought in the requirements because, whilst it acknowledged that victims of domestic violence would still need legal aid, it feared that spurious domestic violence claims would be used to enable people who would not otherwise be eligible to obtain legal aid, thus circumventing the whole point of the legislation.
Now, previously, and when I still did legal aid work (admittedly a long time ago), victims of domestic violence did not need to produce independent evidence when applying for legal aid. The legal aid authority (whoever it then was) simply accepted a statement from the applicant, explaining what abuse they had suffered, and/or why they feared they would suffer abuse. I really don’t see why applicants now can’t be trusted to do the same, rather than be put through the extra trouble, stress and (vitally, in some cases) delay of having to obtain independent evidence. Most people can surely be trusted to be honest, and if the odd truly spurious claim gets through perhaps they could be penalised in costs by the court, once their evidence had been properly tested and adjudicated upon (obviously applicants would have to be made aware of this risk at the outset).
Anyway, those are my few thoughts. Clearly, the survey is important, and if you are able to take part in it, please do. It can be found here. Responses should be in by Friday the 1st of July.