Denise Robertson: Government's cuts to legal aid are putting victims of abuse at risk

Statistics show that victims of domestic abuse need legal aid in order to bring about justice. Denise Robertson looks at the impact Government cuts are having

John Stillwell/PA Wire Dave Lee Travis at London's Southwark Crown Court
Dave Lee Travis at London's Southwark Crown Court

Rights of Women, of which I’m a patron, were at the Royal Courts of Justice last week, seeking permission to challenge the lawfulness of the Government’s legal aid cuts.

They believe those cuts are preventing victims of domestic abuse from getting legal aid, even when it is clear there has been violence, or there is ongoing risk of violence.

Rights of Women argue that this is not what parliament intended. They point to figures showing that two women are killed each week by a current or former partner and 500 recent victims of domestic violence commit suicide every year.

A survey showed that 61% of women experiencing domestic violence, who had been denied legal aid, took no action in relation to their family law problem as a result.

Thankfully, the High Court granted permission for the legal challenge, which was supported by the Law Society, and a full hearing will take place later.

Emma Scott, director of Rights of Women, said: “The decision is an important step in holding the Government to account on their promise that family law legal aid would remain available for victims of domestic violence.”

Legal aid is a lifeline for victims of abuse, enabling them to escape from abusive relationships, protect their children, and manage their financial situations. Access to family law advice and representation is vital.

Ms Scott said: “We know from the women affected that it denies them access to the legal remedies which could enable them to leave violent and abusive relationships and find safety. It is on behalf of those women that we bring this case in order to hold the Government to account on their promise.”

As I predicted a while ago, cuts in Legal Aid are causing a lack of justice and a rise in the number of DIY litigants, people with little knowledge of the complexities of court procedure. This is causing delays in court as judges struggle to help those appearing before them.

Lord Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice, has voiced his concerns about the pressure being put on courts and MPs have been told the rise in litigants in person is leading to unfair decisions. I’m sure that’s true. Some people have the gift of the gab, others don’t. Is that a fair way to settle disputes which may seriously affect the lives of those involved?

Simon Hughes, the justice minister, says: “We are closely monitoring the impact of the legal aid changes and will continue to do so”. Which means precisely nothing to the DIY litigant, his or her knees knocking, as they face the majesty of the law. Last week I spoke with a lawyer who had been part of a firm specialising in all aspects of law and happy to serve its local area.

Thanks to the changes in legal aid, they have had to withdraw from everything except criminal law. Public funding for most private law family cases was removed by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 in April 2013. He told me he hated deserting family law clients but, like other firms, he has to survive. Let’s hope the challenge by Rights of Women will lead to a review of the situation.

I wouldn’t want Dave Lee Travis as a friend but I was shocked that one witness at his trial spoke of ‘office gossip’ that the former DJ had groped a woman backstage at The Mrs Merton Show.

He told the Crown Court: “My recollection is that everyone in that team would have known about this, this was sort of office gossip to some extent.” Can that be called evidence, the recollections of people who weren’t even there when it happened? And doesn’t the inclusion of that sort of testimony suggest a paucity of real evidence?

How long can we keep up air strikes against Isis? There are reportedly 2,000 fewer officers and 7,000 fewer other ranks in the RAF than in 2010.

We have fewer jets and helicopters and not a single aircraft carrier in service. I hope it isn’t a case of “never before have so few been asked by so many to do so much with so little”.

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