LAG has been working with the Women’s Institute (WI), Rights of Women (ROW) and other organisations to try and influence the government into rethinking its proposals on restricting legal aid to women and other victims of domestic violence. We are urging MPs to support an amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (the Legal Aid Bill) which has been drafted by LAG and other campaign groups (the full text of the amendment is reproduced on LAG’s website: www.lag.org.uk/policy).
The WI will be publishing a report next week, which was commissioned by LAG, on the impact of the government’s proposals on legal aid in domestic violence cases. The report draws on academic research and the experience of women who have suffered domestic violence. In a key passage it states that the proposed criteria to qualify for legal aid '… fail to reflect the reality of women’s lives; and in practice will leave vulnerable women without access to legal aid'.
In the government’s response to the consultation on legal aid reform, it outlines criteria intended to act as a gateway to qualifying for legal aid in domestic violence cases. The criteria include obtaining a conviction against the perpetrator but, as the WI report points out, very few women who are victims of violence are able to do this. A woman who left an abusive partner to live in a refuge told the WI: 'I was with him for eight years, the police had been called so many times, I’d been in and out of hospital because of him, I always dropped charges, I was petrified to take it further.'
Many women who spoke to the WI researchers were concerned that they would not be able to gather the necessary evidence to prove domestic violence in order to qualify for legal aid: 'He was a psychopath and I was in intensive care for three weeks and he threatens you doesn’t he, that the children will be taken away, so you stay because you’re frightened to lose the children, so you stay for that purpose, you get brainwashed. The thing about this is they also rape you, they drag you about, they tie you up, but you may not have the scars, but it’s there.'
One of the proposed criteria is that the conditions to qualify for legal aid in cases of domestic violence have to have been met in the last 12 months. Many women told the WI they were not able to pursue legal proceedings within this time limit: 'My husband raped me two years ago and I fled two days later with my children and I immediately went into refuge, survival mode. I needed a home; I needed to sort out money. I couldn’t have been producing evidence in 12 months, I mean it’s taken me two years effectively to leave my home and then be in a situation where I am now, where I have a new house, you know, furniture, sorted out my garden, the children’s schools and everything. It’s been two years, not 12 months.'
In LAG’s view, the WI report provides compelling evidence of the government's need to rethink the criteria to qualify for legal aid. The government has got its priorities wrong. Protection of all victims of domestic violence is what it should be focused on and the amendment drafted by LAG, the WI, ROW and other campaign groups will create fair criteria in the Legal Aid Bill to ensure that this happens.
Read the WI report at: www.lag.org.uk/policy.