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More legal help for domestic abuse victims

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Ministry of Justice, legal aid, domestic abuse, Women's Aid, Changes to make sure that vulnerable women and children get legal support, and are properly heard in court.

The current 5-year time limit on abuse evidence in the family courts is to be scrapped, and the range of documents which can be accepted as evidence of abuse will be widened to include statements from domestic violence support organisations and housing support officers, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has announced.

These changes will come into effect from January 2018.

This move is the latest of steps aiming to protect and support victims of domestic abuse; earlier this year the government announced a £17 million fund to support 41 projects which are to tackle violence against women and girls.

These changes follow a review of the evidence requirements set out in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012.

According to the Ministry of Justice, a Statutory Instrument amending the relevant regulations will be laid in Parliament in the coming days.

The same Statutory Instrument will also amend the regulations to accept evidence of abuse against previous partners, to better evidence an applicant being ‘at risk’ of domestic violence.

The government has also committed to bringing forward a landmark Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill which will ensure that ‘no stone is left unturned in protecting and supporting victims and children’.

Legal aid is available to people involved in private family disputes if they are victims, or are at risk of becoming victims, of domestic violence or child abuse. But to qualify for legal aid, applicants must provide objective evidence of the abuse – and their case is also subject to means and merits tests.

Evidence provided by domestic violence support organisations or housing support officers as part of an application for legal aid in disputed family court cases will need to include a statement that in the letter writer’s reasonable professional opinion, the applicant is a victim of domestic violence or at risk of being a victim; the matters relied on in support of that opinion; and a summary of the support the individual or organisation provided following the determination.

Justice Minister Dominic Raab said: “We have listened to victims’ groups and carefully reviewed the criteria for legal aid for victims of domestic abuse in family cases.

“These changes make sure that vulnerable women and children get legal support, so their voice is properly heard in court.”

Katie Ghose, the Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said: “We are pleased that the Ministry of Justice will make much-needed changes to legal aid rules for victims of domestic abuse, which we hope will ensure survivors can access justice and help transform their experience of the family courts; something that Women’s Aid, in partnership with the Rights of Women and Welsh Women’s Aid, has long campaigned for.

“For far too long, survivors of domestic abuse have not been able to access legal aid because the evidence needed to support an application was too difficult to obtain.

“Many survivors have never seen a criminal case or conviction against the perpetrator, or will not have access to ‘proof’ within the current time-limit, but are still living with the serious and life-long impacts of domestic abuse.

“As a consequence, survivors have either been denied access to justice or had to represent themselves in courts, which has resulted in dangerous situations where abusive ex-partners could cross-examine the victim in the family court, effectively using the court room to continue the abuse.

“Therefore, we welcome news that the MoJ will be changing evidence requirements to reflect survivors’ lived experience of domestic abuse, and make access to legal aid a reality for all domestic abuse victims.

“The legal aid rules will be brought in alongside new guidance, training and protocols for the family courts, to help ensure that vulnerable witnesses can access the special protection measures they need when in court.

“We are pleased that following our campaigning these changes will be implemented, which are urgently needed to make the family courts safer for survivors of domestic abuse.

“The government’s forthcoming landmark Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make further changes to the criminal justice system so that survivors of domestic abuse can be safe in the knowledge that they will be listened to, believed and supported in their access to justice.

“But alongside the new law the government must provide a cast-iron guarantee to secure the future of domestic abuse services, especially life-saving refuges, so that all women can safely escape domestic abuse and be supported in her recovery.”

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