Skip to main content

Legal Aid (Women and Families)

Volume 539: debated on Tuesday 24 January 2012

It is a great honour and a privilege to present this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. Legal aid was first established by the post-war Labour Government under the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949. It was established to ensure that ordinary members of the public who cannot afford legal fees can obtain legal services when they need them in areas such as family law, mental health, education, immigration and asylum, consumer issues, welfare benefits, employment and criminal defence.

The aim of legal aid is to ensure that individuals are able to defend or to enforce their rights, or to obtain advice on how to tackle the problems they face. As a result, it plays a key role in tackling social exclusion, and in helping individuals to protect their rights against richer and more powerful opponents. Since its creation, it has formed a central plank of the post-war welfare state. It is the arm of the welfare state that keeps the other arms honest and ensures that they are all directed towards the public good.

Legal aid funds private practitioners to provide that service, rather than setting up a legal equivalent of the NHS. As a result, many legal aid practitioners provide support through a comprehensive network of outlets, often run by self-employed individuals in small partnerships, as opposed to the state directly contracting lawyers. But that makes them uniquely vulnerable to major systemic shocks, such as current plans brutally to cut social welfare legal aid.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate him on securing this important debate, which I know he cares passionately about. On funding and sustainability, does he accept that our legal system costs more than £2 billion a year and is one of the most expensive in the world and that that is, in current economic and financial circumstances, unsustainable?

The hon. Gentleman is a lawyer who has practised in the past. I will respond to his point later.

The Government know that many legal aid practitioners provide support in the way that I have described. That is why the Cabinet Office has taken over this Minister’s mess and is trying to ensure the long-term viability of the advice sector. Legal aid support, particularly early intervention, demonstrates effective value for money for the taxpayer. According to cost-benefit analysis by Citizens Advice, for every £1 of legal expenditure on housing, debt, benefit and employment advice savings are made, although I will not give all the figures, which I am sure are available to hon. Members. As a result, it is clear that the savings made by cutting the legal aid budget will be dwarfed by increased costs elsewhere to the public purse. That is why cuts to advisory services, particularly to welfare advice, are both short-sighted and short-termist.

There is also a human cost. In any given year, legal problems such as divorce, eviction or debt will be experienced by one in every four people, but by one in three people with long-term sickness or disabled people, half of unemployed people and half of lone parents. People with one unresolved problem often accumulate other problems rapidly. If you cannot resolve early-stage problems, more problems will often accumulate and end up in a vicious circle. These cycles can result in people losing their jobs and income, suffering stress-related illnesses and experiencing relationship and/or family breakdown.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that if we do not deal with the whole cluster of problems, we might allow problems to get worse? If people’s employment and debt problems are related, and we resolve the debt problem but not the employment one, we are merely postponing the problem and it will come back again.

I thank my hon. Friend for her important intervention. I agree with every word that she said. I will come back to this matter and develop it later in my speech.

Such problems are closely related to social exclusion, poor outcomes for children and levels of crime and antisocial behaviour, all of which represent significant costs to public services. Children whose families are experiencing civil and social problems are more likely to become involved in truancy, exclusion, and offending.

For the past 40 years, local law centres have been providing legal advice and support to the most vulnerable and needy in their communities. In the late 1970s and early ’80s I worked as an advice worker in a law centre and have experience in that field. I dealt with communities that suffered due to unemployment and other reasons. Law centres are an essential part of community life and are the first port of call for many people experiencing social and civil legal problems.

Law centres must be protected because of their experience. They have been working for 40 years with local communities, building a relationship with the public, landlords, organisations, local authorities and projects. They have local access; they are well established in communities; they are easily accessible; and they are trusted by communities. The brand power of law centres, like citizens advice bureaux, lies in their having gained public trust and confidence. They provide face-to-face advisory services and build trust and stronger relationships with clients. Services provided by the 52 law centres in England and Wales can be divided into three strands, namely individual casework, education and prevention, and developing policy. All three strands of services provided by law centres and CABs demonstrate the important strategic role played by these organisations in their local communities.

On advice centres, does the hon. Gentleman welcome the fact that this Government will spend £4.7 million to fund 44 court-based independent domestic violence advice positions across the country, which clearly shows that they are committed to supporting the most vulnerable in our society?

I will answer that question later in my speech.

Issues raised in individual casework are often the root causes of problems faced by communities, which places law centres in the unique position of being able to disseminate information to other support bodies and to propose remedies. Research by the New Economics Foundation calculated the contribution of law centres by quantifying the social value such institutions provide and found that for every £1 invested in a law centre, a further £15 of social value is generated.

Family legal work remains the most costly area for the civil legal aid budget. It covers issues of child welfare and protection, as well as divorce, property and relationship breakdown issues. The proposals have retained legal aid for cases where domestic violence or forced marriage is involved and for cases where children’s safety is in danger.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. A lady in my area who reared her children and left her job, and depended on her husband for income, finds herself needing legal aid after a messy divorce, but cannot receive it. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that families—ladies in particular—will find themselves vulnerable at this time?

I agree. As I stated earlier, the impact will be on families in society.

Abundant research has been carried out into the adverse consequences of family breakdown. There is also ample evidence suggesting that job loss, financial difficulties and loss of income can bring about family break-up. Therefore, the provision of advice for other civil law problems, such as employment, housing and debt are important in preventing problems from escalating.

The Government’s proposals would seriously damage access to justice, especially for the most vulnerable in society. The Ministry of Justice impact assessment shows that there will be a disproportionate effect on women. Similarly, the cuts disproportionately impact on black and minority ethnic clients and those with disabilities. As legal aid is targeted to those with low incomes, it will have a disproportionate effect on this section of the community. However, it is likely that those on very low incomes will be particularly negatively affected.

And then there is domestic violence. I direct the Minister to a speech of great power delivered by the noble Baroness Scotland in another place to the Minister, Lord McNally:

“look at the average case, such as when a woman has run from her home. She manages to go to her GP, who sees the injuries and notes them and then sends her to hospital because there are fears that she may have cracked a rib or another bone. She is seen by the medical staff and they verify that the injuries that she complains of are genuine. Her neighbours may have come in to rescue her from an assault. They may not have seen the assault taking place but have noted what was happening and taken her away. Social services may have come along and examined the children, spoken to them and heard what they had to say. All of that might have been used by the police who then came along and arrested the man. He may then acknowledge that he has indeed committed the offences that are alleged against him. Even if all those things had happened, under”

the Government’s current

“provisions the woman would not be entitled to legal aid. That cannot be right.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 January 2012; Vol. 734, c. 595.]

Does the hon. Gentleman accept, in relation to the interdepartmental working between the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office, that the Home Office is providing more than £28 million of stable funding until 2015 for specialist local domestic and sexual violence support services and £900,000 to support national domestic violence helplines and the stalking helpline, and that that shows its commitment on this issue?

Again, the hon. Gentleman makes a very good intervention, but at the same time we need to consider the impact of the reductions and where the resources are going. That is what the debate is about.

Does my hon. Friend agree with the noble Baroness Scotland that the definition that the Government plan to adopt on domestic violence could result in some 46% of the cases that currently attract legal aid no longer doing so?

I thank my hon. Friend. Every hon. Member who has spoken has made a very good intervention. I agree with what he has said and am sure that everyone will have recognised and noted it.

I was referring to the speech delivered by Baroness Scotland. She is a practitioner of great experience and ability and is, of course, right.

I am fortunate enough to have the brilliant Southall Black Sisters in my constituency of Ealing, Southall. It is one of the UK’s leading organisations for black and minority ethnic women, and it told me that those women will be particularly hard hit by the Government’s plans. It said that

“the Legal Aid Bill will make it difficult for all vulnerable sections of society, especially BME women, to access justice and in doing so, remove meaningful legal protection from them and instead push them into community forums such as religious arbitration tribunals where not only will they be denied justice and protection but they will be encouraged to reconcile with abusive partners in order to uphold so called religious and family values. Women who have experienced and are at risk of violence and abuse will be at further risk of domestic and sexual violence, sexual exploitation and forced labour.”

It has been widely reported as fact that women who have experienced domestic violence will still be eligible for legal aid in private family law proceedings, such as disputes concerning the care and upbringing of children, but that is simply not the case. Experts in the field have unanimously raised the concern that too many women who have experienced domestic violence and need help will fall through the gaps in the proposals.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that men are likely to be financially better off than women and therefore better able to pay for legal work privately and that women are more likely to be in non-unionised jobs?

I agree with every word that the hon. Lady has said. I am sure that the Minister will also take note of those points in his response.

Experts in the field cite two particular concerns. First, the definition of domestic violence currently used in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill is inconsistent with the cross-Government definition of domestic violence, which guides statutory agency practice and governs access to Government services. Importantly, the definition used in the Bill fails explicitly to refer to financial abuse and sexual violence, which are particularly insidious forms of domestic violence. It is not clear why the Bill uses a different definition of domestic violence, unless the purpose is to restrict the number of cases that will be deemed eligible for legal aid. Under the current proposals, many who are already known to be victims of domestic violence by other departments will not obtain the legal support that they need.

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for giving way; he has been very generous. I wonder whether he would like briefly to address the fact that 23 special domestic violence courts are closing on the current Government’s watch. How will that affect women?

I think that I will come back to that. I thank my hon. Friend for the intervention. When I reach the last lines of my speech, he will hear about the impact of the various proposals on women.

Under the proposals, victims of domestic violence will be expected to provide “objective evidence” of that violence to qualify for legal aid. Experts unanimously agree that too many victims will remain ineligible for legal aid because the evidence that they will be required to present is dangerously restrictive. The evidence of domestic violence that the Government propose to accept relies on victims taking civil and criminal proceedings against perpetrators, yet we know that a large proportion of victims do not take those routes. To ensure that all women affected by domestic violence are protected, it is essential that the evidential criteria used reflect the experiences of women and the reality of domestic violence. That must include evidence from specialist domestic violence organisations, health services and social services. The Government have failed to think through their proposals adequately.

The notion that “We are all in it together” is not alien to the Labour party. Indeed, this may be the first time that a Conservative Prime Minister has adopted a socialist slogan as his mantra. However, these cuts are deliberately, unashamedly and, I argue, viciously targeted at those who most need help. I am looking at the time; I am sorry, but I have indicated that I need to rush. As I have said, the cuts are targeted at those who most need help and, in the case of domestic violence sufferers, there can be no defence.

I ask the Minister to think again, particularly on domestic violence. In its current form, the Bill will leave thousands of women who have experienced the trauma of domestic violence, trafficking for the purposes of sexual and other forms of exploitation and exploitation as a migrant domestic worker in a private household with a stark choice between representing themselves in legal proceedings or taking no legal action at all to protect themselves. It will also have a life-threatening impact on black and minority ethnic women, who, as a result of cultural, religious and other social pressures and racism, already struggle to access the legal system. The Bill will violate the rights and fundamental freedoms of all vulnerable women, but it will have an immensely disproportionate impact on black and minority ethnic women.

It is not too late to think again, but if the Minister does not make up his mind to do what I have asked, I pray that my colleagues in the other place will make his mind up for him.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing the debate. This is an important topic and one that we have discussed at length. I recognise a number of Bill Committee colleagues in the Chamber today. As the hon. Gentleman said, the issue is still being discussed in the other place, as the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill continues its passage through Parliament. However, I welcome the opportunity to have a debate on this specific topic today.

It is notable that the subject of the debate on the Order Paper emphasises the effects of our reforms to legal aid, rather than leading us to debate only the justification for those reforms. It may be helpful, therefore, if I give the wider context for our proposals, without which a proper response about the effect on women and families cannot be given.

I start by confirming that the Government are committed to the principle that domestic violence victims need support both legally and otherwise. The Home Office is providing more than £28 million of stable funding until 2015 for specialist local domestic and sexual violence support services and £900,000 to support national domestic violence helplines and the stalking helpline.

The Ministry of Justice has contributed towards the funding of independent advisers attached to specialist domestic violence courts since 2007-08 and will have contributed just over £9.25 million by the end of 2012-13. In addition, the victim and witness general fund will provide a total of nearly £15.5 million in grant funding over the next three years to voluntary sector organisations that support the most seriously affected, vulnerable and persistently targeted victims of crime. Of that, nearly £4.7 million will be used to fund 44 court-based independent domestic violence adviser positions across England and Wales for the next three years. My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) was right to mention that. We will also allocate nearly £3 million a year for the next three years to 65 rape crisis centres, and we are working with the voluntary sector to develop the first phase of the new rape support centres where there are gaps in provision.

Domestic violence protection orders are being piloted in three police force areas. They are designed to give immediate protection to victims by banning a perpetrator from returning to the house, thus giving the victim the breathing space that they need to consider their next steps. Such orders show a real commitment by this Government to tackling domestic violence—and, if I may so, it is a commitment that is rarely recognised or taken into account when directing criticisms to our proposals for legal aid.

I am obliged to the Minister for giving way. Will he address the point that I made in my earlier intervention? What effect does he think that the closure of 23 special domestic violence courts will have on women?

The hon. Gentleman is avoiding the reality of the situation. In all except for fewer than five of those courts, the service is being transferred to other surrounding courts. I will write to him with the specific details because I do not have the numbers in front of me.

With that context in mind therefore, I will move on to the specific issue of the legal aid reforms. The £2 billion annual cost of legal aid, combined with the economic climate of the day, mean that hard choices must be made. It is essential that resources are focused on cases where legal aid is most needed—that is where people’s life or liberty are at stake, where they are at risk of serious physical harm or immediate loss of their home, or where their children may be taken into care.

As well as retaining legal aid for criminal cases, we are also keeping legal aid for mental health matters, asylum matters, debt and housing matters where someone’s home is at risk and legal aid for judicial reviews of public authorities. All of those are directly relevant to family welfare. That means that we are retaining legal aid to seek an injunction to prevent domestic violence and to oppose a child being taken into care. We are also retaining legal aid for private law family cases where domestic violence is a feature. We will also be keeping and extending legal aid for family mediation. The power to waive the financial eligibility limits in cases where someone is seeking an injunction against domestic violence also remains, so those who need help securing protection will be able to get it.

Does the Minister agree that excluding undertakings from the domestic violence gateway could have the perverse effect of encouraging litigation, thus potentially increasing costs?

As I said in Committee, the Government are looking at the question of undertakings and that continues to be our position. We hope to come forward with that as the Bill progresses through the other place. If I am to say very much more, I will not be able to take any further interventions.

We are also retaining legal aid for all child parties in family cases, and of course exceptional funding will be available in any out-of-scope case where a failure to provide legal aid might breach the European convention on human rights or EU law. Taken together, we expect such provisions to mean that we will continue to spend around £120 million a year on private family law legal aid, based on 2009-10 figures. When we include legal aid for public family law matters, spending will well exceed £400 million, again based on 2009-10. We will continue to spend nearly £130 million a year on legal representation for child parties. That represents around 95% of current spend.

I accept that women and children will often be directly and indirectly affected by private family law proceedings, but, as I have said in the past, we have had to make tough choices here. We cannot afford to fund generally lengthy and often intractable disputes in the family courts. However, we know that mediation can lead to better results that are consensually and less acrimoniously agreed and that are potentially longer-lasting than those imposed by a court. We expect an extra 10,000 mediations a year, which is up from the current figure of around 15,000.

Mediation will not always be appropriate, however, particularly when domestic violence is involved. We know that it can have a devastating effect on women and children, as well as men, who are a significant and often overlooked group of domestic violence victims. Domestic violence is also a significant predictor of children being taken into care as well as a precursor to all sorts of other social problems. On top of that, we also know that perpetrators of domestic violence can assert a controlling, insidious power over their victims, which could potentially stop a victim from effectively presenting their case against the perpetrator in court. On those points, I agree with the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall and with Baroness Scotland. However, the hon. Gentleman’s example of a woman who would not get legal aid after running from an abusive husband is not accurate. That sort of case would get legal aid. When a person is convicted of domestic violence against a partner, the partner will be eligible, as conviction would count as evidence. That is why we have made a large, and extremely important, exception in our proposal to remove most private family legal aid from scope of our reforms—that is where domestic violence is a feature.

There has been much debate about the definition of domestic abuse in the Bill and the fact that we do not use the definition of the Association of Chief Police Officers. We are considering that as the matter proceeds through the other place.

There has also been much focus on the evidence criteria for domestic violence to qualify for legal aid in private family law cases. We need clear, objective evidence of domestic violence to target taxpayers’ money on cases where the victim needs assistance. The allegation, which has again been made today, is that the Government’s criteria will miss a great number of genuine victims, and various pieces of evidence have been adduced to support this, and we will continue to look at them. They include the evidence provided by Southall Black Sisters, who have made a significant contribution to the whole case.

Those pieces of evidence refer to domestic violence victims as a whole and point out their difficulties in dealing with the civil or criminal justice systems. We are dealing with a subset of that group—those who are seeking private family law legal aid. They will have, in certain respects, slightly different characteristics to domestic violence victims as a whole. By definition, they will be engaged in the civil justice system. A significant number, nearly 10,000 in 2009-10, will be seeking civil legal aid for a protective injunction at the same time as they seek legal aid for their private family law matter. They will all meet the evidential criteria. We know that in total there were 70,000 legal aid family cases in 2009-10. Let me compare that figure to the prevalence of the types of evidence that we are requesting. Around 24,100 domestic violence orders were made in 2010, the great majority with the benefit of civil legal aid. Around 74,000 domestic violence crimes were prosecuted in 2009-10, and there were 53,000 domestic violence convictions. Around 43,000 victims of domestic violence were referred to Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conferences in the 12 months up to June 2010.

We also propose that an ongoing criminal proceeding for domestic violence and a finding of fact in the courts will be taken as evidence. Now these figures will clearly overlap to some degree, but what they point to is that a significant proportion of those 70,000 private family law cases that we currently fund will continue to be funded. We think that this proportion will be around 25%, which matches our rough estimate of the prevalence of domestic violence. I should also say, though, that this comes from a number of sources, and definitive evidence is not available.

I have also committed to look again at whether the issue of undertakings in a court can be used as evidence. We are clear about the need to ensure that those who are victims of domestic violence and need legal aid can access it and these requirements are designed to enable that.

Turning to legal aid for children, we have protected funding in areas that specifically involve children. We have retained legal aid for child protection cases, civil cases concerning abuse of a child, and for cases concerning special educational needs assistance. We have also made special provision so that legal aid is available for children who are made parties to private family proceedings.

I should highlight that in civil cases, such as clinical negligence, claims brought in the name of a child are usually conducted by their parents acting as the child’s “litigation friend”, rather than the child themselves. That is a normal part of the rules around civil litigation. As I mentioned earlier, there will also be an exceptional funding scheme for cases where legal aid will not generally be available, which will take into account a person’s ability to represent themselves in legal proceedings where the European Court of Human Rights applies. That will clearly be an important factor in the case of children who might otherwise be left to present their case without assistance.

It is worth noting that the Government published an equality impact assessment, which laid out our assessment of the effects on women of planned changes to legal aid. It recognised the potential for the reforms to have an impact on women and children, but in the context of the cuts that need to be made, and the deliberate focus of legal aid on those who are most vulnerable and in need, we do not believe that this impact is disproportionate.

I do not pretend that the choices we have had to make will have no impact, but they needed to be made.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).