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Civil Legal Aid

Volume 608: debated on Thursday 21 April 2016

On 18 February the Court of Appeal handed down judgment on an appeal in a judicial review challenge to the domestic violence evidence requirements under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). I would now like to inform the House of the steps the Government are taking to respond to the Court’s concerns.

Legal aid is a fundamental part of our justice system, but resources are not limitless. Our overriding approach to legal aid reform is to reduce the burden on the taxpayer of paying for legal aid, while ensuring that it is targeted at the highest priorities. In line with this approach, LASPO removed legal aid from most private family matters while making a clear exception for victims of domestic violence. In such cases, the applicant is required to supply specific evidence of domestic violence, which is set out in regulations.

In this judicial review, the Court of Appeal found that the regulations frustrated LASPO’s purpose in two specific areas. First, in that they required evidence to have been obtained within a two-year period before the application for legal aid. Secondly, because they lacked provision for victims of financial abuse.

We continue to believe that victims of domestic violence in private family disputes should receive legal aid where evidence is provided, and the Court of Appeal has agreed that the Lord Chancellor has the power to make arrangements in regulations to allow this. But there are areas where we need further information—for example, the number of individuals who have evidence over two years old. We also need to more fully appreciate the issues in play in cases of financial abuse, on which there is only limited research available.

We have begun work with domestic violence support groups, legal representative bodies and colleagues across Government to gather data and develop our understanding of these issues. Our findings will be used to inform an evidence-based solution to the Court’s concerns, with the aim of drawing up replacement regulations.

In the meantime we are taking immediate action, through interim regulations laid before Parliament today, to change our arrangements. We are more than doubling the original time limit for evidence—increasing it from two to five years, and we are introducing a provision for the assessment of evidence concerning financial abuse. We are expediting implementation of these changes so they will come into effect on Monday 25 April in order to make sure that victims of domestic violence can receive the support they need as soon as possible, and to give certainty to those considering applications for legal aid. We believe that these arrangements address the Court’s concerns while work continues to find a sustainable longer-term solution.