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What next for legal aid?

May 8th, 2012 by

Philippa Newis the Policy Officer at Gingerbread, a national charity for single parent families, gives us an update on Legal Aid changes: 

The Legal Aid, Punishment and Sentencing of Offenders Bill (LAPSO) received Royal Assent on 1st May. The Bill, now Act, courted controversy from the start; taking an axe to the pot of money available for legal aid and restricting the issues that are eligible for funding.

Legal aid has now been removed from private family law. This means that people on low incomes can no longer receive legal aid to get help from a lawyer if they are separating from their spouse or partner and have been unable to agree arrangements for their children. Without access to legal aid, parental disputes can go unresolved for years, leaving kids trapped between warring parents and exposed to ongoing conflict and acrimony.

The exception to this is when someone has been a victim of domestic violence, an important concession in the Bill.  But when we read the small print in the original draft of the Bill, we realised that the vast majority of domestic violence victims would never be able to provide the evidence required to get legal aid. Why? Because domestic violence is grossly under-reported. Very few victims ever call the police, let alone secure a conviction against their abuser. However, we do know that victims routinely seek help from their GP, social worker or a domestic violence charity.

This aspect of the Bill became the focus for much campaigning by a range of organisations, including Gingerbread. After almost a year of campaigning we now have an Act of Parliament which may be far from perfect, but within which we’ve managed to secure some crucial changes to ensure victims of domestic violence can access legal aid to protect themselves and their children from the risk of ongoing violence and conflict. We’ve got a definition that covers all forms of violence, not just physical. And we’ve got a commitment to broaden the forms of evidence allowed to include a written statement from GPs and other statutory agencies.

Does that signal an end to our campaigning?  Absolutely not. Away from the glare of the media, work on secondary legislation gets underway. This is when the meat gets put on the bones of an Act. Crucially, the regulations will detail the types of evidence victims of domestic violence will need to produce to access legal aid for private family law. These will be tabled in the autumn and will be voted on by MPs. We’ve come a long way, but we need to make sure government stands by its promises when the media circus moves on and that additional forms of evidence are included, such as a supporting statement from a domestic violence charity.

As seasoned campaigners know, change takes time and persistence. Organisations like Gingerbread will continue to need 38 degrees’ members, and your support and committed activism. Next stop: regulations. We’ve got another opportunity to get this right so let’s grab it with both hands.

What do you think about the Legal Aid Bill? Do you want to see further campaigning on this issue? Share your ideas in the comments section below.

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  • Josie

    It is so disappointing that the Con-Dems have fiddled with Legal Aid, but this government do not care, cuts are the only answer they have, people don’t matter!  I do not have any particular knowledge of this subject, but I think we must keep fighting.

  • Lucy N.

    We’re being engulfed by a tsunami of the ConDems “deforms” of access to support – legal, health and social security.

    Yes, I want to see further campaigning on this – without the potential recourse to the courts the public will have no way of remedying – even partially- individual and class inequity.

    When I write “class” this is because this deform is also going to have a deplorable effect on those who otherwise may be able to hold bad employers to account – and we’ve only had a glimpse of Cameron/Clegg/Cable preparations to allow bad employers to hire’n'fire depending on how they feel that particular day and whether you are liked or disliked. What about when health and safety is at stake??

  • Joy

    I would like to continue to campaign on this important issue. Any area in which the poorest and most vulnerable in our society are being hit most by the ‘we’re all in this together’  policies of this most regressive of governments is crucial.

  • Claire

    This worries me greatly. My partners ex-wife did not allow him to see his son when they divorced and he had to go through the family courts to try to see him. He got through on legal aid. Unemployed he would now not have recourse to do this. Widening the definitions of domestic violence also worries me as it is well known that vengeful ex-wives will make up any story (including lies about domestic violence) to wrong-foot their ex-husbands.  

  • Lynne

    Yes – We must keep campaigning on this issue.  When we have legal aid available for terrorists who reside in our country and for politician’s who fiddle their expenses, we need to make sure it is there for the poorest and most vulnerable of our society.