Access to legal aid has been extended to millions more people with barriers reduced for vulnerable groups including domestic abuse victims and children, the Ministry of Justice has announced.
This comes following the conclusion of the government’s review of the means testing for civil and criminal legal aid.
As a result, over six million more people will be able to access legal aid as part of a £25 million-per-year pledge made by the government.
It means domestic abuse victims on universal credit and seeking a protective order for themselves or their children against their attackers can access legal aid funding more easily without facing a means test.
Those who share a house with their abuser will also benefit from changes to disputed or inaccessible assets – which will no longer be considered when assessing someone’s financial eligibility for aid.
Taken together, these measures also go further to support victims of coercive control by making them eligible for legal help without needing to access funds from joint assets, said the Ministry of Justice.
Other measures which will come into force over the next two years include:
- Free legal representation will be available to anyone under the age of 18, as well as for parents challenging traumatic and difficult medical decisions such as withdrawal of their child’s life support – removing one more burden for families
- Making everyone eligible for legal aid to defend themselves in the Crown Court, ensuring fair trials and ending the so called “innocence tax” where people were forced to pay for a legal defence even if they were then found not guilty
- Increasing the amount of income someone can receive before having to contribute to legal aid fees by over £3,000 for civil cases and over £12,000 for criminal cases in the magistrates’ court
The changes to legal aid access for domestic abuse victims were part of a package of recommendations made by the “Harm Panel” to better safeguard vulnerable people against domestic abuse in family courts.
Its report found serious failings in the family courts with concerns that lengthy courtroom battles were re-traumatising victims, and that allegations of domestic abuse were not taken seriously.
The progress report published today highlighted a number of changes to better protect children and parents including:
- A ban on perpetrators cross-examining their victims in court
- Automatic special measures for victims such as protective screens and giving evidence via video link
- Clarifying the law on “barring orders” to prevent perpetrators from bringing their ex-partners back to court, which can be used as a form of continuing domestic abuse
“We have made huge strides since the Harm Panel published its report and delivered cultural changes across the family justice system to ensure domestic abuse victims feel supported and protected,” said Justice Minister Lord Bellamy:
“Our changes to the legal aid means test will also make the justice system fairer for those who need it most.”
“Widening eligibility for civil and criminal legal aid is an important step in the right direction and something we have long been pushing for,” said Law Society President Lubna Shuja, adding that the Society “[welcomes] the continued passporting of victims of abuse on universal credit seeking a protective order for themselves and their children”.
Shuja did, however, point out certain caveats:
“We would like to see this go further with non-means tested legal aid in these cases and universal credit considered a passporting benefit in all cases. We also need to see the detail to understand if the proposals have addressed our concerns regarding the relative disadvantage for lone parent families.
Means test eligibility has not been updated in line with inflation since 2009 despite prices having risen by 40%. Whilst the increased thresholds are welcome, we are disappointed the government is only uprating the gross income thresholds to 2019 prices, which are already out of date as the cost-of-living crisis causes prices to spiral. We need to consider the detail of the proposals to understand if other thresholds reflect inflationary increases.
Increased eligibility is long overdue, but if thresholds are not regularly increased with inflation the cost-of-living crisis will mean more and more people are going to fall back through the justice gap.”
Shuja also added that, for the benefit of this these announcements to be felt, the public “must be able to find a solicitor to provide help when they so badly need it”, continuing:
“Our legal aid desert maps and duty solicitor heatmaps have demonstrated there is an acute crisis in legal aid provision. Large areas of the country have no access to face-to face civil legal aid services and police station duty solicitor schemes across England and Wales are in peril. Investment is needed in civil and criminal legal aid provision right now.”