Last Thursday the Ministry of Justice announced that it has awarded a grant of just under £900,000 to two organisations to help them provide support for victims of domestic abuse in family courts. The grant is part of the package of support for victims of domestic abuse who are going through family court proceedings announced by the government in its response to the domestic abuse consultation in January.
The details of the grant are as follows.
The money will go to two organisations who provide in-court support to vulnerable victims: the Personal Support Unit (‘PSU’) charity and the Citizens Advice Witness Service (I will explain more about both of these in a moment).
We are told that the “PSU will be using the funding to invest in further training of their staff and volunteers and to share learnings on best practice with a range of family justice stakeholders.” As for Citizens Advice, they “will be using the funding to extend their current Witness Service to selected family courts to provide information and practical and emotional support to victims before, during and after the day of the hearing.” The crucial detail is that:
“The funding runs from January 2019 through to 31 March 2020, and will allow Citizens Advice to provide these services in up to 12 family courts across England and PSU in 24 courts across England and Wales.”
OK, so let’s look at all of this a little more closely.
The PSU actually has its origins in family proceedings. As the ‘About Us’ page on its website tells us:
“In 2001, Lady Diane Copisarow OBE supported an unrepresented person through a divorce proceeding. Under great stress, the individual faced a confusing court system and uncertainty about appearing before a judge. This motivated Lady Copisarow to help establish the PSU to meet the human, non-legal, needs of people attending court alone.”
Back on its Home Page the PSU says:
“Every year thousands of people find themselves facing the battle of their life in court, alone and without help. They have to represent themselves in cases of divorce, contact with children, or eviction from their homes. Under distressing circumstances they must navigate a complex legal system, often against professional representation on the other side.
“In times of austerity the reduced availability of legal aid has meant that thousands more people face the civil and family courts alone. Their access to justice is at risk, as they feel overwhelmed and struggle to represent themselves effectively in court.”
All, of course, extremely commendable, although also very sad that such a service is now so necessary, thanks to the government depriving the less well off in society of legal representation by decimating legal aid.
But wait a moment. I’m probably missing something here, but isn’t legal aid supposed to be still available for victims of domestic abuse? Domestic abuse victims should still have representation. Why, then, is the government providing money for a charity whose purpose is to support unrepresented litigants?
Moving on to Citizens Advice, my understanding is that their Witness Service currently only supports witnesses in criminal proceedings. As the announcement explained, the grant will be used to extend this support to selected family courts.
Which brings me to my next point. As the announcement makes clear, not all victims of domestic abuse will be benefitting (directly or indirectly) from this money. The money will allow the PSU to provide its services in 24 family courts across England and Wales, and will allow Citizens Advice to provide its services in a maximum of just 12 family courts. So if you are a victim of domestic abuse, it will just be pot luck as to whether you will be able to access these services.
My last point about all of this may sound a little ungrateful. However, when one compares it to the £350 million annual savings from the legal aid cuts, £900,000, whilst helpful, is a mere drop in the ocean (and will it be extended beyond March next year?). The government may like to look generous in handing out funding like this, but the reality is exactly the opposite.