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UK: Legal aid cuts will put domestic violence victims at risk, report warns

[The Guardian, London, 18 January 2012] Many victims of domestic violence will be unable to obtain legal help in future to help them escape from abusive relationships, according to a report by women’s groups.

Research conducted by Rights of Women and Welsh Women’s Aid suggests that nearly half of domestic violence victims will not be eligible under cuts in legal aid proposed by the Ministry of Justice.

The report is published as the House of Lords examines a further section of the legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill on Wednesday afternoon and considers in detail plans to restrict legal aid in family cases.

"To ensure that all women affected by domestic violence are protected, it is essential that the evidential criteria used reflects the experiences of women and the reality of domestic violence," the report states.

"This must include evidence from specialist domestic violence organisations, health services and social services. The government has also proposed to apply a 12-month time limit to each of the evidential criteria.

"It would mean that a woman who has had a domestic violence injunction in place could not use the injunction as evidence of violence if it expired more than 12 months ago.

"This simply does not reflect the reality of domestic violence, in particular the ongoing risk that perpetrators pose to women, and their use of private family law proceedings to get back in contact with a woman who has been safe for some time.

"Rights of Women’s family law advice line often receives calls from women who have been separated and safe from an abusing ex-partner for some time, only to be placed at risk once more when he initiates child contact proceedings."

The organisation is urging peers to support an amendment backed by Lady Scotland, Lady Butler-Sloss, the Lord Bishop of Leicester and Lord Blair that would set up a broader definition of domestic violence like that already used by the UK Border Agency to decide immigration applications.

The Lords have so far given the bill a largely hostile reception. Hundreds of amendments have been tabled and prominent Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers have opposed clauses in the bill, which is aimed at saving £350m from the department’s annual budget.

The MoJ insists it is preserving legal aid for women at risk of violence but has failed to gather support in the Lords for its definitions of what constitutes genuine risks.

Another report, released on Wednesday by the Access to Justice Action Group (AJAG), dismisses the claim by the justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke, that the UK has become addicted to a "compensation culture".

It says that in the past five years nearly 3 million people have used "no win, no fee" arrangements to hire a solicitor to help them claim compensation, but the report concludes that there is no "compensation culture" to kill.

AJAG’s co-ordinator, Andrew Dismore, said: "No win, no fee is the only way low- and middle-income people can afford to bring a case for compensation. The legal aid bill is like Robin Hood in reverse. Ordinary people won’t be able to afford to bring expensive legal claims."

The study says most compensation claimants are not well-off and their claims are not excessive. The average amount of compensation they get is less than £3,000 and fewer than 1% of claimants get more than £100,000.

Three-quarters of those who claim compensation have only ever claimed once and a fifth have claimed twice. It says that less than one in every 5,000 insurance claims are fraudulent and only 5% of people who have ever claimed compensation for anything have done so more than twice in their lives.

The report concludes that cuts in legal aid and reforms of no win, no fee agreements "will kill the chances of getting compensation for more than 150,000 people every year who will lose out on redress for accidents that are no fault of their own; and 450,000 people will lose up to a quarter of their compensation in legal costs".

The changes in the bill will, however, save the insurance industry £2.25bn a year, it suggests.

Source: The Guardian

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