Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Last-ditch concessions on Legal Aid Bill

Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, announced further concessions on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, known as the Legal Aid Bill, last night in the House of Commons, but if the bill becomes law next week many thousands of people will still lose out on access to civil justice.

Campaign organisations including LAG, Rights of Women (ROW) and the National Federation of Women’s Institutes had argued that the government should adopt the Association of Chief Police Officers' (ACPO) definition of domestic violence. The ACPO definition covers, 'any incident of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between adults ... who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender and sexuality'. Clarke confirmed last night in the Commons debate on the Lords amendments to the Legal Aid Bill that the government would be incorporating this definition into the bill.

Of greater significance was the government’s agreement to widen the criteria for victims of domestic violence to qualify for legal aid. Clarke confirmed in the debate:

' … we intend to accept as evidence — we will reflect this in regulations — the following matters: an undertaking given to a court by the other party in lieu of a protective order or injunction against that party for the protection of the applicant, where there is no equivalent undertaking given by the applicant; a police caution for a domestic violence offence by the other party against the applicant; appropriate evidence of admission to a domestic violence refuge; appropriate evidence from a social services department confirming provision of services to the victim in relation to alleged domestic violence; and appropriate evidence from GPs or other medical professionals'.

LAG welcomes what we believe is a significant concession from the government which will ensure justice for many victims of domestic violence. We would, though, highlight the concern raised by ROW that the regulations need to include those who have accessed specialist domestic violence services. Many women are turned away from refuges due to lack of space. A ROW survey undertaken on 16 June 2011 showed that 224 women were refused refuge places: 163 because there were no beds available; 13 because they had no recourse to public funds and 48 for another reason such as complex needs. Many more women who are victims of domestic violence receive help from other services than are admitted to refuges. They need legal assistance as well and the regulations need to reflect this.

Clarke also announced a small concession on welfare benefits advice in response to the amendment which had been tabled by the Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake. Clarke said that he would bring forward regulations to allow legal aid in cases in which a point of law was being argued before a welfare benefits tribunal, but this will only be relevant in very few cases. LAG believes most of the estimated 135,000 people who currently receive advice on benefits through legal aid will still lose out if the bill is passed.

The Legal Aid Bill will return to the Lords next week. LAG is urging peers to seek assurances on what criteria will be included in the regulations on domestic violence. Also, the Lords made eleven amendments to the bill, which included amendments on issues such as the compulsory telephone gateway. These have been glibly ignored by the Justice Secretary. The government is up against a deadline to get the bill through by the end of this parliamentary session. Peers need to push for more concessions.

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