The Ministry of Justice has announced that, as of January 2018, victims of domestic violence will no longer have to provide evidence of abuse from within the past five years in order to receive legal aid.
The 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LAPSO) Act, imposed significant restrictions on legal aid eligibility, including a requirement that domestic abuse victims provide evidence that is, at most, 24 months old in order to receive free or subsidised legal advice and representation. In February 2016, the Court of Appeal declared these evidential rules invalid, with Lord Justice Longmore stating that "once it is accepted that part of the statutory purpose is to ensure that legal aid is available to (at any rate the great majority of) sufferers from domestic violence, one has to ask why it is that so many of them are excluded by virtue of the 24 month rule."
Just over two months after the ruling the restriction was relaxed so as to allow for evidence from the past 60 months. Now, The Guardian reports, this time limit will also be scrapped, with new regulations to be "detailed in a statutory instrument put before parliament this week."
The Guardian further reports that, come January, "fresh categories of evidence" will also become admissible, including "evidence from victim support organisations."
The types of evidence currently accepted in support of legal aid applications for domestic abuse victims are set out in Part 4 of The Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) Regulations 2012. This includes: a relevant unspent conviction for a domestic violence offence, a police caution, evidence of relevant ongoing criminal proceedings for a domestic violence offence, an medical reports confirming that injuries sustained by the victim were consistent with those of a victim of domestic violence.
Letters and reports domestic violence organisations are already accepted as evidence insofar as they confirm (i) that the applicant was admitted to a domestic violence refuge, (ii) the dates of their stay and (iii) that their admittance was due to allegations of domestic violence. With this in mind, it’s as yet unclear how their scope for testimony will be widened.
Of the upcoming changes, Dominic Raab, the Minister of State for Courts and Justice said:
“We have listened to victims’ groups and carefully reviewed the criteria for legal aid for victims of domestic abuse in family cases.These changes make sure that vulnerable women and children get legal support so their voice is properly heard in court.”
Over the last few years, concerns over the treatment of victims in the family courts have reached fever pitch. Last December, Sir James Munby released a statement calling for reform in regards to how vulnerable people give evidence in the family courts, expressing concern over the fact that alleged perpetrators of domestic violence are able to cross-examine their alleged victims. The proposed ban on this type of cross-examination is unfortunately yet to be enacted. However, it’s a small comfort that, once the widening of Legal Aid eligibility comes into force, more victims will have access to representation when facing a courtroom confrontation with their alleged abuser.