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Legal aid changes limit justice for victims of domestic violence

Citizens Advice publishes new research into effects of changes

Changes to legal aid have affected the support that six in ten advisers helping victims of domestic abuse can provide, finds new research from Citizens Advice.

The survey of advisers across the Citizens Advice Bureaux network finds restricted access to legal aid is one of the biggest barriers to support for victims of domestic abuse in England. In their work helping victims of domestic abuse only 12 per cent of advisers reported being unaffected by the changes that came into force from April 2013. The findings, from Citizens Advice's new report Victims of domestic abuse: struggling for support?, suggest the Government is failing to deliver on its assurances that legal support for domestic abuse victims is protected.

The survey of over 300 bureaux advisers finds:

Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

"Domestic abuse victims must not be a test case for downsizing justice. When victims seek our help, more advisers than not report legal aid restrictions endangering the outcome of the victim's case. The Government's assurance that it will protect access to legal aid for domestic abuse victims is not standing up.

"Legal aid restrictions are currently forcing victims of abuse to shoulder intolerable extra burdens at their most vulnerable moments. To require someone who has fled an abusive home to make a financial contribution because of assets they share with their abuser is clearly senseless. The evidence victims of abuse now need in order to protect their children or separate from their abuser is also often completely impractical, and threatens to keep victims in harm's way.

"That we have a Government committed to stamping out domestic abuse in all its forms is hugely encouraging. Ensuring all victims of abuse can access the support they need through legal aid and from specialist services must be made a priority to fulfil this commitment."

Under the changed legal aid rules it is up to victims to prove they have been subjected to severe or sustained domestic violence to get access to legal aid. Currently accepted evidence includes authorities already being aware that the victim is at risk of serious harm or murder, physical evidence examined by doctors, or the prior involvement of social services, which can be impossible for abuse victims whose day-to-day lives have been controlled.
Even in cases where the victim can meet the evidence required to qualify for legal aid it is often restricted due to the assets or income of the victims, Citizens Advice research finds. Victims who have left an abusive home can be trapped in a 'catch-22' situation, unable to return to the home to access their financial assets and pay for legal assistance, but ineligible for legal aid because they have a joint bank account or home ownership.

Frontline bureaux workers reported facing a debilitating mix of reductions to both legal aid availability and specialist services for victims. Only 4 in 10 advisers report adequate specialist support for victims with differing needs, with male victims and those with English as a second language amongst those facing the biggest barriers.

Citizens Advice is calling for a re-examination of the evidence currently needed to secure legal aid in a case of domestic abuse. The burden of evidence is currently too high for many victims and especially difficult for victims of non-physical abuse, including victims of financial and emotional abuse.

For details of the appeal lodged by Rights of Women against a judgment refusing its challenge to the legal aid changes, please click here.