Legal aid means testing for victims of domestic abuse desperately needs reform
We are watching and waiting with anticipation to see the outcome of High Court action undertaken by one victim of domestic abuse, as she challenges the Government’s criteria for those eligible for legal aid in family matters.
Why is this judicial review being sought?
In 2012, the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (also known as LASPO) brought in radical changes to legal aid for family cases. We have seen a significant number of people who desperately need help with family law issues finding themselves without access to funding for legal advice that they so desperately need.
So often there is an imbalance in finances when parties separate, and this can particularly be the case in situations of domestic abuse where one party has fled, leaving them without access to any funds. They may also have have experienced financial control, such that they have no access to their own money. The resulting imbalance of funds can then have a significant impact on the balance of legal advice, putting one party on the back foot almost immediately.
What has been achieved already?
Since 2012, there have been some changes to the government funding criteria which have allowed more people to access legal aid. These have not been in relation to the means assessment of funding however, which has remained the same. Instead they relate to the timescales within which a victim must have experienced domestic abuse, moving from the initial two years to five years.
Then, after further pressure from Resolution, Domestic Abuse Support Services and lawyers across the country, the time limit was entirely removed. This, coupled with an extension of those considered able to provide the evidence required of domestic abuse (such as GPs, health visitors and Domestic Abuse Support Services), has had a positive impact on that initial imbalance.
More needs to be done
Despite these positive changes, the issue of the perceived means of a victim of domestic abuse, when they jointly own a home or other assets with the perpetrator, is one that needs urgent reconsideration. Far too many victims are being left without funding for the legal advice they need, despite having no real access of the capital funds which have rendered them ineligible for legal aid.
It is clear that reconsideration of the means aspect of such funding is needed and during these unprecedented times, when domestic abuse support services are reporting at 70% increase in referrals, reform has never been more urgent.