On 4th December 2017 the Ministry of Justice announced that victims of Domestic Violence would find it easier to obtain Legal Aid in family cases. Dominic Raab the Justice Minister stated: “We have listened to victims’ groups and carefully reviewed the criteria for legal aid for victims of domestic abuse in family cases”.
Since April 2013 Legal Aid has only been available for people who have suffered domestic abuse and this must be evidenced in writing; this ‘evidence’ requirement is in addition to very strict means testing.
There is a list of the types of acceptable evidence. These are usually in the form of letters or reports from, for example, a doctor or a social worker. The Government has produced a set of standard template letters which will suffice as evidence. If the templates are not followed exactly, or there is information missing, the evidence will be rejected leaving the client without access to legal advice and representation.
The evidence requirements have been relaxed on a few occasions since 2013. Notably in 2016 the rules were changed which allowed the evidence to go back 5 years, rather than the original 2 years.
From January 2018 the time limit will be scrapped therefore it will no longer be necessary to show the abuse took place within the last 5 years. Evidence from others, such as housing officers or domestic abuse support organisations, will also be accepted. Full details of the changes have not yet been published.
The ‘evidence’ requirements rules apply to family cases involving disputes between individuals, known as ‘private law’ cases. This is generally divorce, finance and children cases. Legal Aid remains available for people whose children are at risk of being taken into care by the Local Authority.
In disputes between individuals (usually parents) over arrangements for children it is also possible to obtain Legal Aid if evidence of child abuse is obtained. The evidence must demonstrate that the other party is the perpetrator of the abuse. There have been no changes to the original evidence requirements brought in in 2013 in respect of allegations of child abuse; consequently the evidence must show the child abuse has taken place within the last 2 years.
Unless there are further changes, from January 2018 the rules will be that a victim of domestic abuse can get Legal Aid whenever the abuse took place. However, someone who has not been a victim themselves but whose child has suffered abuse will only be able to get Legal Aid if the abuse took place within the last 2 years. This is a rather anomalous situation which seems to view domestic abuse as more serious than child abuse.
The changes to the evidence requirements in the past four and half years have been piecemeal as they have been in response to pressure from various quarters. From a practitioner’s point of view the requirement for evidence at all is what causes the issue. People who have suffered domestic abuse are in a difficult enough situation without having to get a piece of paper from a doctor or a social worker, sometimes having to pay for it themselves.
A much more sensible solution all round would be to get rid of the ‘evidence’ requirement altogether, at least for the initial meeting with a family law professional. As part of its Manifesto for Family Law our representative body Resolution has been campaigning for a ‘family law credit’ so that everyone who is financially eligible can have initial advice. If the client needs Legal Aid going forward the solicitor can advise on the options and assist in obtaining the evidence of domestic abuse.