Today marks the first anniversary of the hated Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2010. The Act severely restricted legal aid in private family cases such as Divorce, Children Act (including who your child lives with, who your child has contact with and all of the significant decisions about your child) unless you could prove that you were a victim of domestic abuse. Unfortunately the Ministry of Justice's understanding of what constitutes abuse demonstrates a clear lack of awareness of what Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) is, in reality.
In its original form, the Legal Aid Act (LASPO) would only accept two forms of proof that someone was indeed a genuine victim for the purposes of getting legal aid: one was a conviction against your opponent – but not just any conviction it had to be a conviction for violence from a specific list of offences allowed within the act, within the last 12 months or the winning of a trial in a family case against the same perpetrator for an offence of violence. Similar conditions were imposed on offences against children.
Over the last 2 years front line professionals doing work on domestic violence such as ourselves have been involved in giving evidence, lobbying the Government and a group of six of us from the North East went to the United Nations in Geneva last year for the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) 4 yearly examination of the Government as to how well it was complying with our human rights which are part of this international convention. Not surprisingly CEDAW found the United Kingdom to be not compliant in terms of violence against women and girls. They let the Government know that they required some urgent action to be taken on this, particularly around the issue of access to justice and legal aid.
Over the years we have managed to secure concessions from the Government which include an extension of their definition of domestic violence to include things such as control, financial abuse and emotional cruelty. Unfortunately, even though the Government has, under the pressure of lobbying and the United Nations intervention, failed to widen the type of evidence acceptable for legal aid to situations that involve emotional cruelty, control or other forms of none physical violence.
Most recently, a couple of more concessions have been made in the last month: if a woman cannot get in to a refuge because the refuge is full, for the purposes of legal aid the Ministry of Justice will accept a letter from the refuge manager to say so. What is less clear is how many refuges a woman is expected to try and get in to within her region or within the country before this will be accepted as fact.
We have long campaigned for refuge outreach work to stand as evidence of domestic abuse or confirmation from an Independent Domestic Violence Advisor (IDVA) but the Ministry of Justice is still just not listening.
Coinciding with LASPO's first birthday we welcome Rashida Manjoo, the United Nations Special Rapparteur (like a special investigator) to the United Kingdom for a series of meetings with frontline domestic violence workers.
The Newcastle meeting will take place on Saturday 5th April 2014 and will be chaired by Cris McCurley of Ben Hoare Bell. We will be bringing to her attention that with a reduction in criminal offences being pursued by the Police in relation to domestic violence and women such as Eve Thomas, a woman who was brave enough to see her husband convicted of battery in 2011 being ordered to give her address in Court for an unrelated matter or face prison, and with "panic rooms" being subjected to the bedroom tax, her visit couldn't come at a more timely point.
Looking back on this last year it has been extremely frustrating in terms of getting the Government to listen to experts on this issue of domestic violence and what is possible for victims to provide by way of proof. In terms of what they will accept it sometimes feels a bit like being asked to prove that your roof is leaking: when you provide evidence of a wet ceiling, then being asked to provide evidence that you have not been up in the loft pouring buckets of water on the floor. Check out future blogs for report back on our meeting with the Special Rapporteur.