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Commissioner Baird Comments on Legal Aid for Domestic Violence Victims

17th March 2015

Northumbria’s Police and Crime Commissioner has described it as “completely unacceptable” that a third of domestic violence victims cannot receive legal aid and says controversial changes to the system are a way of rationing the access to funds.

The House of Commons Justice Committee included the findings in a report on the impact of controversial changes to the Legal Aid system in 2012.

Vera Baird QC said: “This confirms an issue I identified when leading the Labour Party’s Women’s Safety Commission “Everywoman Safe Everywhere”, which reported at the end of 2014. I found that 40 percent of domestic violence survivors did not meet the completely arbitrary evidence threshold brought in by the Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling and therefore could not access Legal Aid. Before this was introduced, these people would definitely have received this crucial assistance.”

In these cases, Legal Aid is intended to enable the victim to get the court to address vital issues such as determine parenting arrangements for their children, financial support for them and also the family’s housing arrangements.

“These changes meant that people making allegations needed separate and very specific categories of evidence as well as their own testimony. But much domestic violence by definition occurs between two people away from public view. The very particular nature of the evidence requirements strongly suggests that this is not a qualifying process but a way of rationing access to funds.

“A photograph taken by a police officer of a physical injury such as a bruise or a black eye was no longer considered sufficient evidence, for example.

“The Government has always argued that there is an exceptional payment system to help victims who cannot meet these requirements, but the Justice Select Committee found that only 7% of such applications were granted between April 2013 and September 2014. It’s clearly not working.”

“Combined with the cumulative effect of Government-forced local authority funding cuts for refuges, short-term funding for rape crisis centres and housing and welfare reforms, this has resulted in a chaotic, poorly-coordinated system in which the already-marginalised victims of domestic violence and their dependents are continuing to fall through the net.”