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May 8th, 2012

What next for legal aid?

By Max Brodie

Philippa Newis the Policy Officer at Gingerbread, a national charity for single parent families, gives us an update on Legal Aid changes: 

The Legal Aid, Punishment and Sentencing of Offenders Bill (LAPSO) received Royal Assent on 1st May. The Bill, now Act, courted controversy from the start; taking an axe to the pot of money available for legal aid and restricting the issues that are eligible for funding.

Legal aid has now been removed from private family law. This means that people on low incomes can no longer receive legal aid to get help from a lawyer if they are separating from their spouse or partner and have been unable to agree arrangements for their children. Without access to legal aid, parental disputes can go unresolved for years, leaving kids trapped between warring parents and exposed to ongoing conflict and acrimony.

The exception to this is when someone has been a victim of domestic violence, an important concession in the Bill.  But when we read the small print in the original draft of the Bill, we realised that the vast majority of domestic violence victims would never be able to provide the evidence required to get legal aid. Why? Because domestic violence is grossly under-reported. Very few victims ever call the police, let alone secure a conviction against their abuser. However, we do know that victims routinely seek help from their GP, social worker or a domestic violence charity.

This aspect of the Bill became the focus for much campaigning by a range of organisations, including Gingerbread. After almost a year of campaigning we now have an Act of Parliament which may be far from perfect, but within which we’ve managed to secure some crucial changes to ensure victims of domestic violence can access legal aid to protect themselves and their children from the risk of ongoing violence and conflict. We’ve got a definition that covers all forms of violence, not just physical. And we’ve got a commitment to broaden the forms of evidence allowed to include a written statement from GPs and other statutory agencies.

Does that signal an end to our campaigning?  Absolutely not. Away from the glare of the media, work on secondary legislation gets underway. This is when the meat gets put on the bones of an Act. Crucially, the regulations will detail the types of evidence victims of domestic violence will need to produce to access legal aid for private family law. These will be tabled in the autumn and will be voted on by MPs. We’ve come a long way, but we need to make sure government stands by its promises when the media circus moves on and that additional forms of evidence are included, such as a supporting statement from a domestic violence charity.

As seasoned campaigners know, change takes time and persistence. Organisations like Gingerbread will continue to need 38 degrees’ members, and your support and committed activism. Next stop: regulations. We’ve got another opportunity to get this right so let’s grab it with both hands.

What do you think about the Legal Aid Bill? Do you want to see further campaigning on this issue? Share your ideas in the comments section below.

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