The Ministry of Justice are to announce time limits preventing vulnerable domestic violence victims from obtaining legal aid for Court hearings are to be scrapped.
A recent article in The Guardian reported that the widely criticised rules meant domestic violence victims seeking legal representation in disputed family court hearings, where they could be forced to confront their abuser, had to demonstrate that they had been targeted within the past five years.
Legal Aid Agency regulations also specified that a narrow range of official documents provide proof. For example, medical reports, injunctions and social services records.
Statements from organisations working with domestic abuse victims will in future also be accepted as evidence of risk, under the changes recently revealed. Letters from solicitors and information from housing officers will also be sufficient.
Removal of the five-year limit and the admission of fresh categories of evidence will help large numbers of women and also some men who have previously been deprived of legal advice and representation in often embittered family court disputes over custody and contact with children.
The changes were welcomed by organisations, such as the Rights of Women and the Legal Aid Practitioners Group. Which campaigned against the restrictions and estimated that 40% of female survivors of domestic violence were unable to meet previous legal aid evidence requirements.
Welcoming the shift in policy, Estelle du Boulay, Director of Rights of Women said: “This is both a victory for women and also for common sense. The purpose of Legal Aid is to ensure everyone in society can equally access safety and justice through the law. The current rules are so restrictive that they fail to assist a large number of victims . The majority of whom are women”.
She also said: “We are hopeful that these changes signal a renewed commitment from Government to address the broader landscape of domestic violence provision more proactively. It is of urgent importance that the Istanbul Convention [against domestic violence] is ratified in parliament as this will commit the government to a package of much-needed measures including refuge spaces and prevention work.”