Women’s charities welcomed new regulations from the Ministry of Justice that comes into force today, which aims to broaden the evidence criteria for women survivors of domestic violence to access to family law legal aid.
The regulations allow access to legal aid for private children matters, finance and divorce where there is evidence that: there was police bail for a domestic violence offence, a Domestic Violence Protection Order and evidence of referral to domestic violence support services from a health professional and evidence of not being able to access refuge accommodation.
Amendments to regulations 33 and 34 of the Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) Regulations were laid before Parliament on 27 March 2014. In relation to children at risk of abuse, evidence includes where the party is identified as on bail for a child abuse offence.
Women’s Aid, Rights of Women and Welsh Women’s Aid raised concerns in the past that the difficulties in accessing Legal Aid will keep women in abusive relationships because they are not capable to afford a divorce, feel unable to stand for themselves in court, or worry they may lose their children.
Polly Neate, CEO of Women’s’ Aid said in a statement, “We are pleased to see the Ministry of Justice take positive action to widen the evidence criteria for proof of domestic violence and improve women’s ability to access to legal aid, as this is something that we have been asking for since the reforms came into force last year.”
But Neate argues that reform still needs to be made including “evidence from any domestic violence support service.”
The British Crime Survey in 2010-2011, estimated that 30 per cent of women, equivalent to an estimated 4.8 million females, experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16. Roughly 60 per cent of women were estimated to have experienced domestic abuse in the last year alone.
Director of Rights of Women, Emma Scott, said even though the Ministry of Justice is committed to the ongoing review of the domestic violence for legal aid, the criteria still “does not reflect the realities of the lives of women affected by violence and the routes they take to safety.”
“We call on the Ministry of Justice to ensure that appropriate training and guidance is given to solicitors, health professionals and other statutory services to ensure that women affected by violence are appropriately assessed for eligibility and supported to obtain the necessary evidence,” said Scott.
Courts Minister Shailesh Vara said, “I want to emphasise that we will protect vulnerable groups by keeping fees the same for sensitive family issues including adoption applications and child contact. Moreover, we are scrapping the fee for domestic violence injunctions to make sure there are no unnecessary barriers between people and the help they need.”