Justice denied for domestic violence victims

Patricia ScotlandIn the UK, two women every week die as a result of domestic violence. Every week, 230 victims need help to leave their abusive relationship. Victims of domestic violence make up 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men in the UK.

Today [Monday 5 March] our House will debate the provisions in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill relating to access to Legal Aid for victims of domestic violence. I have tabled, with the support of the Rt. Reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, Baroness Butler-Sloss and Lord Ian Blair of Boughton, amendments to ensure that all victims of domestic violence are able to access legal aid.

The Government has repeatedly expressed its concern to protect victims of abuse from cuts to Legal Aid. The Justice Minister, Jonathan Djanogly, during the House of Commons debate on 31 October 2011 said:

“If domestic violence is involved, the Government believe that legal aid should be provided.”

However, provisions in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill relating to domestic violence will mean that, according to a recent survey by Rights of Women, at least 46% victims of domestic violence receiving Legal Help will no longer be eligible for it because of the dangerously narrow terms in which the provision is drawn.

The Government has recently accepted that the definition of domestic violence contained in the bill must change. The revised version is much closer to the existing definition, tried and tested by the Association of Chief Police Officers over a number of years, and we welcome the Government’s change of heart.

Unfortunately, by failing to widen the evidential criteria required to obtain Legal Aid, this concession has little meaning or effect.

The proposed evidential criteria appears to fly in the face of Mr Djanogly’s commitment and, indeed, in the face of what I believed to have been a universally agreed understanding about the nature and extent of domestic violence in our country and its impact on its victims, whether they are men, women or children.

In its current proposed terms a police officer’s statement that he/she believes domestic violence is present will not be enough evidence to grant the victim legal aid.

Neither will a medical certificate from a GP nor confirmation of domestic violence from Social Services do.

Indeed, a victim whose abuser has admitted to domestic violence but has avoided a criminal conviction by agreeing to attend a rehabilitation programme will not be able to access to Legal Aid.

Lord MacDonald’s tabled amendment allows for changes to widen or narrow the evidential criteria through secondary legislation. However, I do not believe it is appropriate to leave it to the Minister’s discretion as to what evidence should be used. The types of evidence that are permitted and the ability to use other forms of evidence should be clear on the face of the bill.

Those in Government who believe that we need to separate the genuine victims from those raising false allegations should consider the universally accepted research that evidence of false allegations is extremely rare and, indeed, the reverse appears to be true. According to recent research, victims remain in an abusive relationship for (on average) 5 and a half years before coming forward to an Independent Domestic Violence Advisor or at all.

I understand that the Lord Chancellor wishes to save the public purse from involvement in essentially private matters. Let me assure the Lord Chancellor that domestic violence is by no means a private matter. A victim of domestic violence lives with dysfunction; and I think we can all agree that a dysfunctional member of society is a matter of public interest.

My amendment harmonises the evidential gateway in LASPO to those of other agencies, such as the UK Border Agency, and reflects best practice across Government. The support for a wider evidence gateway has come from across parties and outside the political arena. In fact, during the debate at Committee Stage, not one member of the coalition spoke against my amendments. We had support for widening the gateway from the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord MacDonald, the former head of the Family Division, Baroness Butler-Sloss, and myself, the former Attorney General – each expert in the field of domestic violence.

Recently, a letter in support of my amendments has been signed by representatives of almost all of the major faith groups in the UK and submitted to the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice.

I hope all sides of our House will come together to take part in this crucial debate so that we may together persuade the Government to see sense and, if they refuse, I hope the House will join me in the lobbies and defeat them.

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

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