Victims of domestic violence are being unlawfully denied legal aid, the Court of Appeal has ruled.
In a significant setback for ministers, the appeal judges said that government changes to the rules for obtaining legal aid in domestic violence cases were legally flawed.
The rules on evidence, introduced by the government as part of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), have prevented victims of domestic abuse from getting legal aid for family cases, even when it is clear there has been violence, or there is an ongoing risk of violence
The ruling is a victory for the campaign group Rights of Women, which appealed against a High Court judgment that large numbers of victims were unlawfully excluded from obtaining funding because of the changes. They said that as a result, women who had endured rape and beatings were unfairly forced to “face their abuser in court” without legal representation.
The judges ruled the changes invalid because they require verifications of domestic violence to be given within a 24-month period before any application for legal aid. They also ruled that the changes were flawed because they excluded from legal aid victims of domestic violence who had suffered financial abuse.
Emma Scott, the director of Rights of Women, said: “Our research has consistently shown that nearly half of women affected by domestic violence do not have the required forms of evidence to apply for family law legal aid and that more than half of those women tell us they take no legal action as a result. This leaves them at risk of further violence and even death”.
“For nearly three years we know that the strict evidence requirements for legal aid have cut too many women off from the very family law remedies that could keep them and their children safe. Today’s judgement is important recognition of women’s real life experiences of domestic violence and means that more women affected by violence will have access to advice and representation in the family courts”.