Legal aid changes offer vital lifeline for domestic violence victims

The decision to lift strict time limits placed on obtaining legal aid for domestic violence court hearings has been a long time coming, and is set to offer a vital lifeline to vulnerable victims who have previously been afraid to take their abusers to court. The ruling, which was announced in February 2017, means that thousands of men and women who have faced abuse – some possibly for years – are more likely to see the the perpetrators brought to justice.

Following a speech by Theresa May promising a new law to increase prosecutions for domestic violence, the decision looks to change widely criticised rules (and rightly so) that meant victims seeking legal representation in family court hearings – where they are often forced to confront their abuser – had to demonstrate they had been targeted in the last five years in order to qualify for legal aid.

Giving more victims the opportunity to take their cases to court, the ruling is, in my opinion, simply common sense. The purpose of legal aid is to ensure that everyone in society has access to justice, and as they stood, the rules were leaving a number of victims vulnerable to further abuse.

The announcement follows a Judicial Review against the government brought by charity Rights of Women in 2016 in an attempt to turn the spotlight on the previous rules. Notably, it means that the Ministry of Justice will now accept new types of evidence in domestic violence proceedings, including statements from organisations working with domestic violence victims, housing associations and solicitors.

Removing the five-year limit, as well as the admission of fresh categories of evidence, is set to provide much-needed help for victims who have previously found themselves deprived of legal advice and representation in family disputes, such as those involving custody and contact with children issues.

Rights of Women provided evidence as part of its legal case that revealed as many as 40% of female survivors of abuse could not meet the existing legal aid requirements. This meant that many vulnerable victims were forced to face their abuser in court.

It spoke of a case involving a woman who had been raped and beaten by her former husband and had been refused legal aid for a hearing in which he had applied for contact with their children. I have dealt with a variety of cases involving domestic violence and believe the removal of this time limit will lead to a brighter future for victims who have previously been unable to fight for justice.

In 2015, the Commons Justice Select Committee produced a report that found more than a third of domestic violence victims could not provide the evidence required to gain legal aid. Last year, the Ministry of Justice extended the time limit for those suffering from domestic violence, or those at risk of domestic violence, from two years to five.

It is vital that those at risk of domestic violence fully understand that they are able to access legal aid for advice on their rights and options, as well as assistance to better understand the negotiations and paperwork involved. Those eligible can seek legal representation in cases where they are at risk of losing their home, as well as on their finances if they have been in an abusive relationship.

In my time as a solicitor I have handled many domestic violence cases and I know all too well the psychological damage that abuse can cause. Domestic violence has no ‘typical victim’; both men and women in either heterosexual or homosexual relationships can be affected, and it’s high time changes were made to give these people a voice.

The treatment of domestic violence victims during legal proceedings can shape their lives and recovery afterwards. This is why I am also in favour of a separate move in which the family courts are expected to announce further developments that will reduce the suffering of victims of serious crimes, spanning further afield than domestic violence.

At present, the law states that victims who provide a prerecorded video testimony of their ordeal in a criminal case cannot present the tape for use as evidence in the family court. Instead, they are asked to deliver a fresh account, which can cause them to relive the trauma they have experienced. The rule changes mean that existing recorded testimonies from the crown course will be accepted.

I am hopeful that the changes are a signal of a renewed commitment from the government to address the entire landscape of domestic violence provision more proactively. Politicians had previously committed to protecting the victims and their families at risk of domestic abuse, however a significant number of victims remain at risk under the existing rules, which can be incredibly restrictive and confusing. The decision to change the rules will enable efficient and targeted legal advice to be given to the individuals who are most in need – resulting in saved costs, time and lives.

The impact of domestic violence is long-lasting, and victims often find they are unable to form close relationships for many years, if ever, afterwards. However, legal aid provides for representation in proceedings, enabling domestic abuse survivors to escape from abusive relationships and to protect their children, as well as to better manage their finances. The judgement will help to ensure they can achieve vital access to justice.