Domestic violence legal aid changes were 'invalid'

A woman with her head in her hands Image copyright PA

A women's charity has won an appeal against rule changes which it said "cut too many women off" from legal aid in domestic violence cases.

Rights of Women said victims were being unlawfully denied funding in civil court cases because of changes made by ex-Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling.

A rule that proof of domestic violence must be less than 24 months old was "invalid", the Court of Appeal said.

The Ministry of Justice said the ruling would be "carefully considered".

Rights of Women argued that rules introduced in 2012 had prevented victims of domestic abuse from accessing legal aid - even when there was "clear evidence" or an "ongoing risk" of violence.

Legal aid is money given to pay legal costs for people who cannot afford them.

'First hurdle'

The legal argument focused on the requirement that evidence of domestic violence - such as documents from medical professionals or social services - must be less than 24 months old to be considered.

During the one-day appeal hearing in January, lawyers for Rights of Women said data showed 40% of victims did not have the required forms of evidence.

They said large numbers of victims were being turned away "at the first hurdle", meaning they had to pay for a solicitor - which often meant going into debt - represent themselves or give up on the courts.

The Court of Appeal found that Mr Grayling, in his former role as lord chancellor, did have the power to set requirements about evidence for domestic violence cases.

But it concluded that a government regulation was "invalid insofar as it requires verifications of domestic violence to be given within a 24-month period before any application for legal aid".

It said the regulation was also invalid "insofar as it does not cater for victims of domestic violence who have suffered from financial abuse".

Rights of Women says financial abuse - where an abuser steals or restricts access to money - is "almost impossible for women to evidence".

'Risk of death'

Sarah Clarke, Rights of Women's solicitor at the Public Law Project, which brought the case, said: "We are very happy that the Court of Appeal has allowed this appeal.

"Legal aid provides for representation in proceedings enabling domestic abuse survivors to escape from abusive relationships, protect their children and manage their finances. This judgement will help ensure that they can achieve access to justice."

Rights of Women director Emma Scott said research showed that more than half of women who lack the evidence to show they have suffered domestic violence take no legal action because they cannot get legal aid.

"This leaves them at risk of further violence, and even death," she said.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "We are pleased the court confirmed the lord chancellor did have the power to set domestic violence evidence requirements.

"We will now carefully consider the two findings made about the period of time for which evidence applies and concerns about victims of financial abuse.

"We are determined to ensure victims of domestic violence can get legal aid whenever they need it."

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