Rosa trustee Dr Aisha Gill writes about the importance of access to legal aid for victims of domestic violence.
On 21 June 2011, the Government announced the publication of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. The Bill will abolish Legal Aid for a range of legal cases including welfare benefits appeals, immigration applications, and child contact and residence disputes. DV victims who can satisfy the evidence criteria and women who apply for ILR under the DV rule will still be able to access legal aid for certain areas of law. The government additionally plans to cut £290 million from the Legal Aid budget (Legal Action Group, 2011; Robin, 2011; Rights of Women, 2011).
These cuts would place further barriers in the way of providing women equal access to legal justice. In many civil cases involving female victims of domestic violence the abusive party initiates the proceedings. Under the Bill, victims will have to choose between paying for expensive private legal services or representing themselves, deterring many from bringing their cases to court (Liberty, 2011) and increasing the stress involved in those stated by an abusive partner. Many NGOs have serious concerns over the Bill’s proposal to limit a client’s choice of legal representation. Further, no mandatory information is required regarding the qualifications of those providing legal advice.
Presently, the proposals contradict wider government policy concerned with protecting women and girls from violence. The Cross-Government Action Plan on Violence Against Women, published in March 2011, commits the Government to “take action to reduce the risk to women and girls who are victims of these crimes and ensure perpetrators are brought to justice.” However, if the Bill proceeds as stands, it will place women (and their children) at greater risk by making it harder for them both to leave violent relationships and to resolve issues relating to their children. Thus, it will act against the Government’s stated aim of promoting gender equality. Indeed, the proposals may well serve to further entrench women’s inequality by undermining efforts to combat VAW.
The government must consider amending the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill to ensure that it reflects women’s experiences and does not leave vulnerable women and children without support. Jonathon Djanogly, the Minister leading on this Bill, told the House of Commons at Report Stage (31 October 2011) that if domestic violence is involved, the government believe that legal aid should be provided. As the Bill currently stands many women who have experienced domestic violence will not be able to access legal aid.