The government is being called upon to stop the “callous, insensitive and injust” practice of doctors charging domestic violence survivors for letters proving that they have been abused.
GPs are charging as much as £175 for a medical letter confirming that someone has been subjected to domestic violence, according to police and crime commissioners.
Under new legislation, domestic violence survivors now have to provide official evidence of their abuse before they can access legal aid. A doctor’s letter is one form of accepted evidence – but critics say that the prohibitively high cost charged by some GPs is preventing women from taking their abusers to court.
In an open letter published by the Guardian, 16 police and crime commissioners (PCCs) called on the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to make these fees illegal.
Liz Truss, the justice secretary, was also urged to scrap the requirement for a doctor’s letter altogether.
“That victims of domestic abuse are even being asked to prove they are victims before they can access legal aid is insulting, insensitive and wholly unhelpful,” Tony Lloyd, the Greater Manchester police and crime commissioner, told the Guardian.
“It should not be a privilege for victims of domestic abuse to gain legal aid,” he continued. “There should be no further burden on victims to chase a letter to verify their claim.
“The government needs to scrap this fee by bringing the service under NHS funding or – better still – scrap the need for the letter entirely.”
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While not all GPs are charging for the letter, campaigners say that some have demanded up to £175 from victims who have been raped, beaten or psychologically abused by their partners.
The open letter from PCCs reads: “Escaping abusive relationships is a struggle; it takes a great deal of strength and courage, and the government must do all it can to avoid placing unnecessary barriers in front of people who are clearly desperate to change their circumstances.”
Legal aid is a government-funded service designed to help people meet court costs. To be eligible, you normally have to prove that you couldn’t afford to pay for legal help on your own.
According to Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, nearly half of all female domestic violence survivors “take no action” against their abusers “as a result of not being able to apply for legal aid.”
Watson, who first highlighted the issue of the controversial fee after visiting a women’s refuge in Manchester, described the situation as “appalling”, and said that he had requested an “urgent meeting with ministers to put an end to this practice.
“The government should scrap this unfair, immoral fee now,” he continued. “It has to stop.”
Domestic abuse will affect one in four women in their lifetime. On average, two women are murdered by a current or former partner in England and Wales every week.
You can sign Watson’s petition against the practice of charging for letters to prove domestic violence cases here.
Images: Rex Features, iStock