Legal Aid was established to assist individuals who would otherwise be unable to afford legal presentation and access to the court system. However, there has been a few reforms which has created significant barriers.
After the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) came into effect in 2013 the amount of civil legal aid certificates fell by 80%. The restrictions to get legal aid were strict, the evidence had to be within 5 years (this was 2 years until a landmark case of R (on the application of Rights of Women) v The Lord Chancellor ) and the evidence had to fit certain categories, called “gateways” perfectly.
Since April 2016, the Ministry of Justice has consulted with domestic violence support groups and other legal representatives to improve the governments understanding of the issue victims of domestic violence come across when obtaining and providing evidence for legal aid purposes. The LASPO changes are based on these findings. From the 8th January 2018, the LASPO requirements have broadened. The 5 year limit has been scrapped and more gateways for evidence have been introduced, these are:
- A relevant police caution for a domestic violence offence
- Relevant ongoing criminal proceedings
- A relevant conviction for a domestic violence offence
- Bind overs connected with a domestic violence offence
- Domestic violence protection notice
- A relevant protective injunction
- Finding of fact
- Expert report produced as evidence for court/tribunal
- Letter or report from an appropriate health professional
- An appropriate health professional referral to a domestic violence support service
- Multi-agency risk assessment conference (or other local safeguarding forum)
- Letter from an independent domestic violence advisor/advocate
- Letter from local authority or housing association
- Letter from organisation providing domestic violence support services
- Letter from organisation providing domestic violence support services – refusal of admission to a refuge
- Letter from public authority
- Leave to remain in the UK under paragraph 289B of the Immigration Rules
- Financial abuse
Although the majority of the gateways haven’t changed, there are some that have been amended slightly. For example, the broadening the category of the health professional, before 8th January this used to be only General Practioners (GP). Other medical practitioners include registered nurses, health visitors, dentists, midwives, paramedics and even radiographers! This also reduces the reliance on only GP’s being able to write letters in support of victims of domestic violence.
Another change to the evidence requirements that we will notice at Hodge Jones & Allen is that letters by independent domestic/sexual violence advisors and organisations providing domestic violence support services are now accepted. We have had new enquiries who provide these type of letters but would not have been accepted up until the changes!
The changes show that the government are more accepting of financial abuse as domestic violence as this can be used as evidence. Although, the legal aid agency have not written an exhaustive list or things that are essential to prove this. This is the only gateway where the legal aid agency have discretion.
The Government estimate that these changes will cost the legal aid agency up to £24 million a year. However, these are changes that are essential and domestic violence support groups have been campaigning for changes to LASPO since it was implemented.
It is important to note, the wording of the letter/report still needs to include certain information. Therefore, LASPO evidence will always need to be checked by a solicitor. The Legal Aid Agency will have the final say as to whether the evidence is satisfactory. There are also financial checks that the client would need to satisfy to be able to be eligible for Legal Aid.