Access to means-free legal aid has been extended for both parents and those with parental responsibilities as well as domestic abuse victims, the Legal Aid Agency has announced.
The changes, which have been welcomed by the Law Society, took effect on 1st March 2023. In public family law cases, the extension applies when opposing applications for placement and adoption orders in public family law proceedings involving local authorities. This rules change brings the merits test in line with cases covered by the Special Children Act 1989.
With regards to providing evidence of domestic abuse, applicants now have the option of having domestic abuse assessments carried out by health professionals over the telephone or by video conference.
This is a new alternative to an examination in person when a report or letter is needed as supporting evidence of domestic abuse.
Other changes in the pipeline include new rules affecting the scope of family legal aid in relation to special guardianship orders (SGOs) for family private law proceedings. This is due to take effect from 1st May 2023.
“We are pleased to see the widening of criteria for family legal aid cases,” said Law Society of England and Wales President Lubna Shuja, who added that the changes to the evidencing of domestic abuse was of “particular importance”:
“Victims used to have to produce a letter from a health professional, but it would only be accepted by the Legal Aid Agency if the meeting had been face-to-face, at a time where medical appointments are increasingly online.
This change to legal aid recognises the additional hurdle created by the requirement for evidence of face-to-face medical appointments.”
Shuja did, however, call on the government to go further to ensure legal aid is available to protect victims of abuse:
“The Domestic Abuse Act introduced a definition of domestic abuse, emphasising that it can be emotional, controlling, or coercive abuse as well as physical violence.
The current Domestic Abuse Gateway fails to reflect this wider definition and does not include ways in which emotional, controlling, or coercive abuse can be recognised. This should be rectified.
Experienced domestic abuse solicitors are able to recognise coercive and controlling behaviour and should be authorised to confirm a client is a victim of any kind of domestic violence for the purpose of obtaining legal aid.”
Amendments to the civil legal aid regulations are available to view and the LAA have updated the appropriate guidance on GOV.UK.
This guidance includes details of the new family law proceedings codes which have been built into the Client and Cost Management System (CCMS).
- LASPO 2012 (Legal Aid: Family and Domestic Abuse) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Order 2023– rule changes available to view here.
- Legal aid guidance: civil– domestic abuse rules change is covered in updated “evidence requirements for private family law matters guidance”.
- Civil legal aid application forms: supporting guidance– CCMS codes to use relating to public family law changes can be found in the “post-April 2013” guidance document (third attachment).
- Legal aid guidance: Lord Chancellor– see Lord Chancellor’s guidance (under section 4 of LASPO), which has also been updated to take account of public family law changes.