On Monday April 16th, the House of Commons will once again debate the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill after the House of Lords made extremely important amendments to the Bill which should improve eligibility for legal aid in family law cases which involve domestic violence. There have already been closures with Haven Wolverhampton closing its counselling services on March 31st. The full scale of the cuts to domestic violence and its effects on women is evidenced in article in the Independent this week.
We have one last chance to ensure that cuts to domestic violence services stop.
Please email your MP with your concerns about the cuts to services. Rights of Women: helping women through the law has a template letter that you can use.
Petition Here: Stop Cutting Funding To Domestic Violence Resources.
Responsible department: Her Majesty’s Treasury
The recent cuts to domestic violence resources mean that more women will be forced to return to abusive relationships, thus risking the lives of more and more women and children. We ask the government to refrain from making further cuts to the Domestic Violence resources, which so many women rely on to escape abusive relationships; cuts which risk the safety of women and children across the UK.
The following information is taken directly from the Rights of Women website. I will take it down after Monday but this information needs to be out there:
Briefing for the House of Commons, April 2012
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill 2011 (the Bill) removes almost all legal aid for private family law cases. The Government has stated its commitment to ensuring that legal aid for family law cases continues to be available to those affected by domestic violence. However, the Government plans to introduce dangerously restrictive evidential ‘gateways’ through secondary legislation which will exclude the majority of domestic violence victims. Rights of Women’s research with Welsh Women’s Aid indicates that at least 46% of domestic violence victims would be ineligible for legal aid under the Government’s proposals because they will not be able to satisfy these evidence gateways.
The House of Lords introduced vital amendments to the Bill to ensure that legal aid will truly be available to victims of domestic violence in family law cases. Baroness Scotland’s amendments 192, 194 and 196 to the Bill ensure that the evidence gateways reflect the reality of victims’ experiences of violence and the broad range of evidence they are likely to have.
• Amendment 192 ensures the cross-government definition of domestic violence is included in the Bill; which reflects the range of violence experienced by most victims.
• Amendment 194 seeks to widen the evidence gateways to include evidence most victims are likely to be able to produce, for example evidence from a doctor, or a domestic violence support worker, in order to access legal aid.
• Amendment 196 removes the 12 month time limit the Government proposes to apply to most of the evidence; so women can use evidence that is more than 12 months old.
Evidencing domestic violence is very difficult, if not impossible for many women. The routes which women seek to find safety from violence and abuse are many and complex. They are also entirely dependent on a woman’s individual circumstances. Despite attempts to address it, domestic violence remains a largely hidden crime. Many women will not disclose the violence they are experiencing to anyone and will not report it to statutory agencies for various complex reasons.
The NFWI conducted research into violence against women and legal aid, to inform the development of the Bill. One woman who took part in the research told us;
I’ve never reported any incidence of violence with my ex-partner, the only time I reported it was when I got pregnant. And Social Services were involved so I reported it to them. I never saw the police as an option because I didn’t think they could help abused women.
In 2010 124,895 women accessed Women’s Aid England member services including 17,615 who escaped violence to live in refuges. In their 2010 annual survey only 15% of women in their member refuges had a conviction against their perpetrator, only 25% had a protective injunction and only 19% had been referred to a MARAC (see the evidence gateways proposed by the Government below).
The evidence gateways in Amendment 194
(a) a court conviction or police caution;
(b) a protective court order such as a non-molestation order, occupation order or forced marriage protection order;
(c) relevant criminal proceedings or a police report confirming attendance at an incident resulting from domestic violence;
(d) evidence that a victim has been referred to a multi-agency risk assessment conference;
(e) a finding of fact in the family courts of domestic violence by the other party giving rise to the risk of harm to the victim;
(f) a medical report from a doctor;
(g) a letter from a registered general practitioner;
(h) an undertaking given to a court by the alleged perpetrator of the abuse that he or she will not approach the applicant who is the victim of the abuse;
(i) a letter from a social services department;
(j) a letter of support or a report from a domestic violence support organisation; or
(k) other well-founded documentary evidence of abuse, such as from a counsellor, midwife, school or witness.
The evidence gateways proposed by the Government
(a) a non-molestation order, occupation order, forced marriage protection order or other protective injunction is either in place or has been made in the last 12 months;
(b) a criminal conviction, or ongoing criminal proceedings;
(c) the victim has been referred to a Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference; or
(d) a finding of fact in the family courts of domestic violence by the other party giving rise to the risk of harm to the victim
It is worth noting that the alternative criteria laid out in Amendment 194 is tried and tested; the UK Border Agency uses this list to assess applications under the Domestic Violence Immigration Rule.
The twelve month timeframe will unnecessarily exclude women
The Government has applied a twelve month timeframe to most of the evidence criteria. This arbitrary timeframe fails to reflect the reality of domestic violence and the ongoing risk to women’s safety. One woman who took part in the NFWI research told us;
He will always be a risk to me and my children and to women generally. I would love to know who the government are getting their advice from….In my case, yes, I could’ve shown all that evidence had it been last year. Next year I can’t because it’ll all be out of date.
The twelve month timeframe fails to take into account the fact that women are often put at risk again, after being safe for some time after leaving a violent relationship. For example many women will leave a violent relationship along with their children, years later the perpetrator applies for child contact or custody. At this point women need access to legal aid to effectively negotiate these legal proceedings. If the twelve month timeframe applies, they will no longer have the support of legal aid at this point.
It is therefore vital that the criteria for eligibility for family legal aid reflects the reality of domestic violence and both the legal, statutory and non-legal and informal routes which women choose to tackle the violence in their lives. We urge you to support Amendments 192, 193 and 196 to retain legal aid for victims of domestic violence and to raise your concerns on this issue with Ministers.
Rights of Women: Emma Scott or Katherine Perks 020 7251 6575 / firstname.lastname@example.org
National Federation of Women’s Institutes: Sophie Howes 0207 371 9300 / email@example.com