Applications for legal aid via the domestic violence and child abuse gateway have increased by 21% since last year. John Bolch joins us on the blog to look at whether people are manufacturing abuse allegations to get legal aid.
The latest legal aid statistics published show a spike in the number of applications for legal aid via the domestic violence and child abuse gateway (growing 21%).
When legal aid was abolished for most private law family matters back in 2013 the government took the decision to keep cases involving domestic abuse in scope. This meant that where a party or their children had been victims of domestic abuse or violence then they could still obtain legal representation. It is known as the ‘domestic violence and child abuse gateway’.
This appeared to be a sensible decision. Obviously, victims of abuse need protection, and the idea of them having to represent themselves in court is abhorrent.
But there is a problem, and one that, as we will see, was clearly in the mind of the government at the time they made the decision to keep domestic abuse cases in scope.
Anyone with any experience of family law will know that some parties are prepared to go to any lengths to achieve the result they seek. Irrespective of the issue of legal aid, such people are quite prepared to manufacture serious allegations against the other party, in order to help their case.
Add to that the fact that they will not want the disadvantage of not having legal representation, and the temptation to make up false allegations of domestic abuse in order to get legal aid might be overwhelming.
Some will say that such things are a rarity. Others will say that they are happening all the time, and may point to the legal aid statistics to back up their case.
The latest such statistics have just been published by the Ministry of Justice and the Legal Aid Agency, for the period January to March 2018, and I suspect that they may have raised a few eyebrows amongst those who believe that the availability of legal aid for cases involving domestic abuse is being abused.
The statistics show that in January to March 2018 applications for legal aid via the domestic violence and child abuse gateway increased by 21% compared to the same period in 2017. The number of such applications that were granted also increased (up 14%) compared to the same period in 2017. These are the highest quarterly figures since the inception of this type of application in 2013.
So the question is: why are so many more people using the gateway? Has there been an increase in the incidence of domestic abuse, or in the number of people abusing the gateway? The answer is actually neither.
As I mentioned earlier when it set up the gateway the government was concerned that it may be abused. It, therefore, imposed strict evidence requirements upon applicants. Anyone claiming to be a victim of domestic abuse would have to provide evidence of the abuse, and that evidence would have to be in one or more specific forms.
In January this year, those evidence requirements were relaxed somewhat, and this clearly appears to have been a major contribution to the increase in gateway legal aid applications in the first quarter of this year.
So the statistics cannot be relied upon as definitive proof that the gateway is being abused.
Still, it would be surprising if the gateway was not being abused, even if only by a few. And of course, if it is then the victims will be those who have to defend themselves against false allegations, rather than those who have been abused. It’s an impossible balance to achieve, and the sort of issue that will inevitably arise when you restrict access to legal aid to just a limited group.
On the one hand you have to protect those in need, and on the other hand, you have to protect both innocent victims and, of course, the public purse, from abuse. There will always be some who ‘slip through the net’, on both sides. Not only will there be some who abuse the system, there will also be some genuine domestic abuse victims who will still not be able to satisfy the evidence requirements, and there are also other vulnerable people, such as those with learning disabilities or language issues, who will not be able to access the legal help they need.
The only answer, of course, is to bring back legal aid for all. That will not of course stop some making false allegations of abuse, but it may well reduce the incidence of such cases. Sadly, it is never going to happen.
You can read the full legal aid statistics here.