A BBC investigation reveals thousands of victims are denied free legal representation, partly as a result of economic abuse.
Thousands of domestic abuse victims in England are unable to access the legal representation they need, due to flaws in the country’s legal aid system.
That’s according to a new BBC investigation, which found that more than 6,000 victims of domestic abuse were denied free legal representation in 2017. Many of these women were turned away because they appeared to have money or assets that would mean they didn’t need legal aid, which provides people who can’t afford to hire a lawyer with taxpayer-funded legal support.
Domestic abuse victims often need legal representation to secure a non-molestation order, an injunction designed to prevent their partner or ex-partner from using or threatening violence against them or their children.
However, legal aid applicants for non-molestation orders are means tested, and often required to pay towards the cost – something that is impossible for many women who are victims of financial abuse.
“While many people think legal aid is free, it is not, you have to pay a means-tested contribution,” Mark Groves, the chief executive of the National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV), told BBC Radio 5 live’s Investigates programme.
Staff at the NCDV try to secure legal aid on behalf of domestic violence victims, who are referred to the organisation by police and specialist services.
Grove said that abuse victims will often appear to have assets or savings, but these are actually controlled by their abusers. In instances where a woman has been forced to leave her home in a hurry, she may not have the documents she needs to provide evidence for her financial situation.
“Economic abuse victims who don’t control their money may not have this [and] those who have fled the family home may not have the right documentation,” he said.
“If you own a house, you have to put down a cash deposit equal to the equity in that house [to access legal aid], which could be hundreds of thousands.”
Most legal aid was removed from the family courts in 2012, with the exception of domestic abuse cases. In December, the government announced that it was scrapping the five-year time limit on domestic abuse evidence in family courts and widening the range of documents accepted as evidence of abuse. Victims must still provide evidence of the abuse and have their income and assets means-tested to get access to free legal support.
In response to the BBC’s investigation, the government said it had taken steps to make legal aid easier to obtain in domestic abuse cases.
“This includes widening the evidence that can be submitted, ensuring most victims only have to provide evidence once during their case, and scrapping the overall time limit for submitting evidence,” said a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice.
“The Legal Aid Agency also considers all evidence of financial abuse, allowing victims to clearly demonstrate where this has occurred.”
For advice on how to support a friend who is experiencing domestic abuse, click here.
If you are experiencing domestic abuse yourself, you may find this article helpful: ‘A lawyer explains how to safely escape an abusive relationship’. Otherwise, you can find advice and support at Women’s Aid, Refuge and the National Centre for Domestic Violence.
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