The eligibility hoops for domestic abuse victims to receive legal aid?

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Domestic abuse refers to any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse. This includes abuse that is:

  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Financial
  • Sexual
  • Psychological

Domestic abuse has always been an issue through which many people suffer in silence. Worryingly, it has become more prevalent during the Covid-19 pandemic as families and couples being forced into lockdown resulted in a surge of incidents.

The guidance available to victims of domestic abuse for seeking emergency injunctions during the pandemic acts on the presumption that victims have access to a safe place away from their abuser, can complete an application, provide witness statements, and attend telephone hearings. Yet it fails to acknowledge the increased difficulties social distancing has imposed on victims trying to get time away from their abuser to ask for help. This leaves them trapped, and unable to escape from a very volatile situation.

Yet even for many of those who manage to navigate the difficulties of seeking help in the first instance, they are instantly hit with barriers to accessing legal advice. Legal aid should be able to help these victims, but instead, the eligibility requirements can often produce further challenges for them. Whilst legal aid is available for those at risk or suffering from domestic abuse, victims are still required to meet certain financial criteria. For a victim trying to escape from domestic abuse, they should not have to worry about how they are going to afford legal advice.

Issues often arise in demonstrating that a victim is unable to afford their own representation, limiting access to legal advice and representation. The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) does not just take into account the victim’s income when determining financial eligibility. The LAA also takes into consideration any capital a victim owns, including the value of their home if they own their property. This completely ignores the fact that the victim’s share in that property is often tied up as the property may be jointly owned with the abuser, making it impossible to release any equity in that property to raise money for legal advice.

For those who fail to meet the financial eligibility requirements and don’t qualify for legal aid, this may leave them still unable to afford a solicitor and facing a telephone hearing, the court process, and their abuser without any support or guidance, in what will already be an extremely complex and distressing situation.

The Office for National Statistics released their statistics on domestic abuse in 2019, and the results were shocking and should have resulted in more significant changes:

  • Almost 1 in 3 women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime
  • Two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales alone
  • In the year up to March 2019, it was estimated that 1.6 million women and 786,000 men suffered from domestic abuse

This resulted in a promise from the Ministry of Justice to review the means-tested eligibility criteria for Legal Aid in relation to vulnerable victims. Yet this was temporarily put on hold due to the pandemic, at the exact time when more victims than ever before needed this help.

It would be unrealistic to think that we could ever permanently stop domestic abuse from taking place, but it doesn’t mean there is nothing we can do about it when it does happen. The time has come for non-means-tested legal aid to be made available for domestic abuse victims, giving them the legal support and access to justice that they need. With the increase in domestic abuse cases over the past year during the pandemic highlighting the absurdity of these barriers, the need to remove the barriers to Legal Aid for domestic abuse victims has never been higher. Legal aid needs to be automatic for victims of domestic abuse – no one should ever have to choose between money and their life.

How Legal Utopia Can Help

When using the Legal Utopia ‘Legal Checker’ service with an individual account, if your legal issue would potentially be eligible for legal aid (subject to financial eligibility), the Legal Checker will automatically identify this for you, and provide a direct portal to the government checker for financial eligibility. This applies to domestic abuse issues. You will then have access to the diagnosis, legal guidance, services, portals, resources, and legal aid services free of charge. Legal Utopia’s mission is to make law more affordable and accessible, and that starts with making sure that the most vulnerable and the people who need help most can access it.

IMPORTANT

If you, or someone else, is suffering from domestic abuse and is in imminent danger or risk of harm, it is vital that you contact the police as soon as possible. If you are unable to talk, particularly where the abuser is present, you can still call the police if you are calling from a mobile by dialling 55 – the call will still go to the police, but they will be aware that you are in a situation where it is difficult for you to talk. Other key contacts for help and support include:

  • 24 Hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0808 2000 247
  • Refuge 24 Hour Helpline: 0808 2000 247
  • Womens Aid: helpline@womensaid.org.uk
  • Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327

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