It is not often that the rants of the current Mayor of London, Boris Johnson catch my attention but this week, there was an exception. Mr Johnson has been highlighting a serious issue that affects far more people than statistics can show: domestic abuse.
You will be aware from other colleague’s blogs and my own, that family and civil legal aid is threatened with near extinction under the Government’s plans to reduce its legal aid budget. The likelihood is that there will be no more legal aid to support clients in dealing with divorce, private law children cases and financial issues.
The Government has however allowed an exception to this rule: where a person seeking advice on the above type of family law cases has evidence of domestic abuse. And this I am afraid is where the furore has started.
As a Resolution Accredited Solicitor in Domestic Abuse, I know from the experiences of my clients that domestic abuse has a wide ranging definition and covers a broad spectrum of abuse and harm. It can include actual physical violence, threats to kill or harm, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, harassment, intimidation and even pestering. With most of the clients I see, whether it be for a divorce, separation, children issues, when clients discuss their life,, the reasons for the breakdown of the relationship, their concerns and worries, there is a high percentage of those clients who in one form or another have been victims of domestic abuse, whether it be the man, the woman or the child.
But in the future, the Government has determined that this definition of domestic abuse is too broad and far reaching (which reading between the lines means too open for abuse from clients and too costly). The Government seeks to limit the definition of domestic abuse for legal aid purposes and thereby limit the number of people who can access legal aid. Not only is the definition of domestic abuse narrowed but also the client would have to be able to prove domestic abuse whether this be by instigating criminal proceedings, obtaining an non-molestation order (injunction) or having Social Services undertaking assessments and child protection conferences.
It has also been recently confirmed that in Non-Molestation proceedings, where the alleged perpetrator of violence gives an “undertaking’ to conclude proceedings (which is a legal promise to the court in the same terms as an Injunction but without any admissions), this will no longer be ‘sufficient evidence’ of domestic abuse. This will again have a massive impact on victims of domestic abuse getting the support and advice they need.
Boris Johnson is quoted as saying “Research tells us that, as with all forms of violence against women, there is significant under-reporting of domestic violence by victims. Therefore, the requirements for ongoing criminal proceedings or evidence of a referral to a multi-agency risk assessment conference as criteria for eligibility will make it impossible for the majority of women experiencing domestic violence to access legal aid’. I could not agree more, but again domestic violence affects men and children too.
As a society we need to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected. Let’s hope that the Mayor of London can garner more support to change the Government’s plans to deny legal aid to our most vulnerable.