02:09, December 27 90 0 theguardian.com

2017-12-27 02:09:03
Number of domestic violence victims without legal help soars

Thousands of domestic violence victims are having to represent themselves in family courts, with government figures showing the number without lawyers has doubled over the last five years following cuts to legal aid.

The Labour party and campaigners expressed alarm after figures from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) showed 3,234 victims had no legal representation in at least one hearing during the first nine months of this year. This contrasts with the same period in 2012 when there were 1,309 victims had no legal representation.

Gloria de Piero, the shadow justice minister, said the figures showed the need for urgent government action to address the issue.

“These figures show the shocking effect of the government’s cavalier changes to legal aid,” she said.

“Thousands of victims of domestic violence are being forced to represent themselves in court against their abuser to seek protection for themselves and their children.”

Refuge, a charity that helps women who experience domestic violence, said increasing numbers of them had no option but to face their abusive ex-partners in the courts.

Sandra Horley, the chief executive of Refuge, said legal aid cuts “have had an enormous impact on women escaping domestic violence”.

She said: “Countless are forced either to fund their own case, or remain at risk. Many of the women Refuge supports have no choice but to represent themselves in court, where they can end up face to face with abusive ex-partners.”

Earlier this month, the MoJ scrapped much-criticised restrictions on access to legal aid for victims of domestic violence, which limited the categories of acceptable evidence, and said aid would only be given where abuse could be shown to have taken place in the previous five years.

Horley said the move was welcome, but did not go far enough: “Much more needs to be done to ensure that the legal aid system recognises the unique financial challenges faced by the women Refuge supports.

“Too many women are currently turned away because they appear to own assets or savings which are actually under their abuser’s control.”

An MoJ spokesman said: “It has long been the case that some people represent themselves in the family court, but we want to increase the support available to them.

“Since 2015, the government has invested £5m of funding to support litigants in person through a range of measures designed to provide additional information, support and guidance led by the advice, voluntary and pro bono sectors.”

The government has faced widespread criticism for making significant cuts to legal aid in 2012 in an attempt to save £450m a year as part of wider austerity measures.

Critics of the the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, including judges and human rights groups, say family courts in particular have been inundated with unrepresented litigants, and that the cuts are a false economy because they usually result in other spending elsewhere.

Government statistics show spending on legal aid fell from £2.6bn in 2005-06 to £1.5bn in 2016, with a significant decline in 2013 when the new rules came into force.

In October the new justice secretary, David Lidington, said his department would review the impact of the 2012 cuts.

De Piero said, however, that “rather than wait months for the completion of their overdue legal aid review, ministers must take action now to ensure no victim of domestic violence is forced to go to court without representation”.