Peers prepare to make a stand on access to justice for domestic

Patricia ScotlandBaroness Patricia Scotland is the former Attorney General and a Labour Peer in the House of Lords

The battle to save legal aid for vulnerable victims of domestic violence and their children continues today.  Earlier this week, because of the dedication and commitment of many, we won amendments tabled in my name by 3 precious votes.  We had the highest percentage voting turnout of Labour Peers since the 2nd Reading of the Health Bill and were joined by 44 Crossbenchers and 6 Bishops.  Others showed their support by sitting on their hands because it was just too painful to vote with the Government for something they knew would be retrogressive and deleterious to victims.

What surprises and disappoints me even now is that we have to fight this battle at all. Domestic violence is something which Ministers have always professed to support.  The fact that they realised the need to move on the definition of domestic violence and widen the evidential gateway, to allow a broader spectrum of evidence to be used to support applications for legal aid, is good. But what they have not accepted is the longevity of the problems that flow from the violence suffered by victims. With many lacking the courage to tell anyone of their suffering, they do not go to statutory agencies and hide from the perpetrator as best they can, so as to avoid the threat and fear they represent.

The perpetrator is often the more affluent and powerful in the relationship, so in a dispute about how much maintenance the victim should receive or the children’s welfare the erstwhile victim can be placed at a material disadvantage. She cannot control whether her former partner makes an application to reduce the money she gets. Neither can she stop him from asking for contact even when she knows the children whom she is desperately trying to protect would be at risk if they were to do so.  All of these issues can arise ancillary to the divorce and many years after the separation.

The Government’s concession falls short where a victim has simply run away, even if it’s just to her parents, and not sought the assistance of the Court, or any of the agencies, nor the support of a refuge.  What is she to do if she has no money, the application is made more than 2 years after the last serious assault, the evidence that the police had come to the house on numerable occasions while the parties lived together cannot be used because the perpetrator had never been cautioned or charged with any offence, and there is no legal aid?  These are tragically not fanciful facts but are experienced by victims every day.  The concession is therefore, not fit for purpose and will leave many domestic violence victims without help. 

We have learnt so much about domestic violence in the last 30 years that we can no longer close our eyes and pretend that we do not understand the consequences of that which we choose to do if we change policy and support.  We have to be responsible for the consequences of our acts.  In this case the consequences of the proposed changes will mean that we are knowingly allowing bona fide victims who are in dire need of our help to go without it.

Yes we have a deficit. But we are not so poor a country that we can afford to allow victims to suffer and possibly die. We have a choice.

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