Over 6 million more people are now eligible for legal advice and representation in family courts, the Ministry of Justice and the Legal Aid Agency has announced.
As a result, it is expected that victims of abuse, such as domestic violence, will face fewer barriers to gaining funded assistance and representation in court.
Legal aid provides support for people who are unable to afford legal representation or need financial help in taking issues to court. However, under austerity measures conducted by the Conservatives since 2010, access to legal aid has become severely limited. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 cut £350 million from the £2.1 billion budget.
Expanding the eligibility criteria for legal aid therefore helps more people access the justice system to get the support they need.
Levelling up the legal system
The Government recently published a progress report following recommendations made by an expert ‘Harm Panel’. This panel was made up of judges, lawyers and legal professional, and was set up to look at how well the family courts protect children and parents in private law proceedings. It found that there were numerous serious failings including abuse not being taken seriously and concerns surrounding prolonged courtroom battles which re-truamatise victims.
The Government’s new report has now revealed that positive changes have been made across family courts since the launch of a new investigative approach pilot in three family courts and a review of the presumption of parental involvement.
Following these findings, the Government has now committed to improving responses to domestic abuse and safeguarding across the family justice system and has delivered on a number of changes:
- a ban on perpetrators cross-examining their victims in court
- automatic special measures for victims such as protective screens and giving evidence via video link
- clarifying the law on ‘barring orders’, to prevent perpetrators from bringing their ex-partners back to court, which can be used as a form of continuing domestic abuse.
Increasing legal protection
Under a major increase in government investment of £25 million a year, domestic abuse victims and children are among the millions more people who will gain access to legal aid. Universal credit recipients seeking a protective order for themselves, and their children will no longer have to face means testing for legal support.
Those who live with their abuser will also benefit from changes to disputed or inaccessible assets – which will no longer be considered when assessing someone’s financial eligibility for aid. Combined, these measures also go further to support victims of coercive control by making them eligible for legal help without needing to access funds from joint assets.
The government set out a plan to reform how family courts deal with domestic abuse allegations and the progress report outlined today shows demonstrable improvements to better protect victims.
Other measures which will come into force over the next 2 years include:
- Free legal representation will be available to anyone under the age of 18, as well as for parents challenging traumatic and difficult medical decisions such as withdrawal of their child’s life support – removing one more burden for families
- Making everyone eligible for legal aid to defend themselves in the Crown Court, ensuring fair trials and ending the so called ‘innocence tax’ where people were forced to pay for a legal defence even if they were then found not guilty
- Increasing the amount of income someone can receive before having to contribute to legal aid fees by over £3,000 for civil cases and over £12,000 for criminal cases in the magistrates’ court
Justice Minister Lord Bellamy said “we have made huge strides since the Harm Panel published its report and delivered cultural changes across the family justice system to ensure domestic abuse victims feel supported and protected.”
Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Alex Chalk, said that “widening access to legal aid secures justice and strengthens the rule of law.”
The Government’s commitment to increasing legal funding for vulnerable families is crucial to levelling up the justice system. Crucially, a change to the legal aid means test will provide much needed support and make proceedings fairer for those who need it most.