As we approach the end of 2013, a year of enormous change, we look back at the impact of the reforms that came into force on the 1st of April and the ways in which we and other organisations have adapted to aid some of the most vulnerable members of our society.
Following the reforms to Legal Aid introduced in April 2013, we been hearing more and more accounts of the most vulnerable members of society being deprived of representation or legal advice and assistance, simply because they no longer meet a rigid criteria set down by the Government.
The implementation of legislation in 1999 set a forum within which a number of fundamental principles, identified by Lord Woolf in his report “Access to Justice”, were introduced. These included, offering appropriate procedures at a reasonable cost and being responsive to the needs of those who use the justice system. This meant that, in times of crisis, people in need of specialist advice and assistance, could access justice fairly and expeditiously.
Sadly, with the recent reforms, this recourse to justice is no longer obtainable, as of right, and those affected are very often the most vulnerable members of our society – and predominantly – if indirectly – children.
Well known charities such as Rights of Women and Women’s Aid are actively campaigning to overcome the problems that have arisen by asking the Government to review the reforms and in particular, to broaden the criteria for funding so that the most vulnerable are able to access Legal Aid.
Some of the problems which have been identified include:
- Victims of domestic abuse forced to stay in abusive relationships as they cannot afford legal advice or representation to obtain protective orders from the Court, including Non-Molestation and Occupation Orders. In consequence, children within those relationships remain at risk of significant harm, either physically, emotionally or psychologically.
- In many cases where Court proceedings are issued, the Respondent will often be unrepresented. This gives rise to the unacceptable position of Applicants having to go ‘head to head’ against their abuser in court. This, in effect, means that the domestic abuse is continued by the court process itself making a mockery of the family justice system. Applicants denied access to legal aid are faced with the choice of having to remain in the relationship (and live with the consequences) or run up debt to obtain legal advice and representation. Alternatively they face going it alone and risk suffering further abuse during the process. Although a number of firms and Barristers are offering fixed fee (reduced rate) packages to assist –the inevitable and unavoidable debt will only add to the stress and trauma – again, not only for the Applicant, but any children as well.
Our response to protecting the most vulnerable and to keeping children at the centre of our action and advice includes:
- With the consent of clients, compiling a portfolio of case studies to help lobby our local MP and increase the pressure on the government to review the reforms. Forging strong links and relationships with outside agencies, including SAFE (Stop Abuse For Everyone), ADVA (Against Domestic Violence and Abuse) and the Citizens Advice Bureau, to offer subsidised legal advice and assistance to those with limited affordability.
- Organising fund raising campaigns to support SAFE and ADVA so that they can continue to assist families who are victims of domestic abuse – so that even if they are denied Legal Aid and access to justice, they can still receive assistance through these agencies.
- Providing free assistance to clients by helping them to gather the necessary evidence/documentation to gain legal aid.
- Providing free information via our website and social media channels.
We are continuing to advance our campaign against the reforms so please check back for further updates.
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