Vital concessions on domestic violence legal aid in UK
Summary of story from the Guardian, July 26 2011
Legal aid for women in abusive relationships may no longer be restricted to those who have suffered physical violence.
This welcome U-turn last week, during a committee stage of the legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill, indicates that vital concessions can be made in the otherwise onwards march towards dismantling our system of publicly funded law.
Although the home secretary, Theresa May, has said in the past that “no level of violence against women and girls” was acceptable, her rhetoric was undermined by a legal aid bill that made domestic violence the precondition for legal aid to access any private family law advice such as divorce, child custody or child support.
This was originally predicated on an outdated notion of domestic violence that excluded psychological violence.
The legal aid minister, Jonathan Djanogly, last week confirmed that he would bring cases under the “domestic violence rule” under the immigration regime back into the scope of legal aid.
This enables people who are on a spouse or partner visa to leave violent or abusive relationships and apply for indefinite leave to remain in this country.
The immigration minister, Damian Green, says 700 victims of domestic violence rely on it every year, although the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association reckon it’s more like 1,500.
It is an encouraging development because as Katherine Perks, policy officer for Rights of Women argues, the compromise “demonstrates that we can successfully challenge the retrogressive measures in the bill that affect women who are experiencing violence”.
Furthermore, the definition of domestic violence in family law cases remains far narrower than the Acpo (Association of Chief Police Officers) standard which includes physical, psychological, emotional, financial or sexual abuse.
Ministers also want “objective” proof by reference to judicial, police or social services process in which domestic violence was certified to have happened.
This overly prescriptive and baffling take on domestic violence has been roundly attacked and now London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, has lent his voice to those critics.
In written evidence submitted to last week’s committee, he argued that “despite recognition in the bill of the need to ensure that victims of domestic violence are eligible for legal aid in private family law matters”, most of those who have experienced domestic violence would be ineligible owing to the “restrictive evidence that they will be required to present”.
Andy Slaughter, Labour MP for Hammersmith has said that ”this is a good opportunity for the government to rethink their policy on legal aid”.
Slaughter argues that there is significant under-reporting of domestic violence by victims, therefore the requirements for ongoing criminal proceedings or a referral to a multi-agency risk assessment conference as criteria for eligibility would “make it impossible for the majority of women experiencing domestic violence to access legal aid.”