12:17, December 27 63 0 theguardian.com

2017-12-27 12:17:03
The cruelty of legal aid cuts for abused women is now undeniable

Financial restrictions on access to justice are always problematic, but further restrictions on legal aid for victims of domestic violence, introduced in 2012, were particularly egregious. Just how much hardship these cuts have caused in the past five years has been made plain in new figures from the Ministry of Justice.

In the first nine months of this year, 3,234 alleged victims faced at least one family court hearing without representation – more than double the number in 2012. The situation had become so clearly awful that campaigners succeeded in getting some restrictions lifted. As of January, evidence of abuse occurring after five years have passed will be admissible, and the evidence of support groups will be allowed. Also, a wider review was launched in October into the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act of 2012 – legislation that removed more than £350m from the legal aid budget, leading to what Amnesty has described as a “two-tier justice system”.

The idea that you can litigate in person, armed only with the simple sword of truth, is a romantic one. The reality is that legal processes are highly formalised, with amateur involvement inevitably causing expensive adjournments, foreseeable delays and multiple returns to court. Inadequate representation burns money and time.

Inching back towards the status quo is not enough, especially in those cases involving domestic abuse. Even in 2012, an alarming 1,309 people were representing themselves, sometimes for the incredibly frustrating reason that the financial assets of the relationship they wished to escape looked healthy but in reality were still controlled by the partner who was allegedly abusing.

It’s often said that it’s hard for victims of domestic abuse to represent themselves because they risk coming face to face with their abuser. It’s easy to understand why someone would be afraid to be in a room with a person who has hit and physically abused them.

But that’s only part of the story. Physical violence is, in the majority of cases, preceded by psychological and emotional abuse. It’s in that period that the victim is primed to stay, even when the relationship becomes violent. Even if it never does become violent, psychological abuse can be more debilitating than physical abuse – and even harder to prove.

The grooming is hard to shake off too. It fosters guilt and shame in the victim. She – though it’s by no means always a she – assumes a feeling of responsibility for the aggressor’s behaviour. But the really crucial thing to understand is that the primary motivation of the abuse is not even to make the victim feel bad. It’s to make the aggressor feel good, and in a remarkably creepy way.

Not only does the victim assume responsibility, the aggressor also absolves himself of responsibility. His projection works both ways. She feels guilt. He feels innocence. He is not only able to make himself out as the victim, but he truly believes that he is. In a courtroom, for this reason, he can be every bit as convincing as he has been to his victim in the past. He burns with the injustice of it all. He wants his day in court.

Abusive people are often arrogant and attention-seeking. Attention, positive or negative, fills the void they feel from their endless, exhausting flight from their own ruined nature. Courtrooms are great for that.

Successful abusers tend to be the stars of the film of their own life. The idea of dazzling the professionals while subjecting their victim to abuse? It is a delicious prospect. They lie without guilt or remorse. They are not, very often, even aware that they are lying.

So, there you have it. That’s why all victims of domestic abuse need legal aid and third party representation. What they fear most is standing in that courtroom and discovering that the trauma bonds still hold, the grooming still activates, and they start to feel compassion for the creature who is murdering their soul. A victim can leave a courtroom thrumming again with the idea that she asked for it. No one should ever be put through that alone.

Deborah Orr is a Guardian columnist