Sophia Raja, Trainee Solicitorat Hanne & Co, sits on the Legal Advisory Board for Rights of Women. She was asked to speak at the AGM and 40th Anniversary of the organisation on 12 March regarding the impact of the legal aid cuts on victims of domestic violence. Here is an extract of her speech:
I worked at Southall Black Sisters (SBS) as a Domestic Violence Advocate during the consultation process before the legal aid cuts came into force. I remember being reassured that at least domestic violence was protected and our client base would still be able to access legal representation in family law matters. The prescribed forms of evidence of domestic violence required to be eligible for legal aid in family law matters however show a limited understanding of domestic violence as many survivors do not report the abuse they have suffered and they definitely don’t magically stop being at risk from the perpetrator after 2 years. It does not even take into consideration the government’s own definition of domestic violence as the evidential criteria focuses primarily on physical abuse.
It is worrying to consider the impact these cuts are having on survivors of domestic violence. In the arena of family law the results of research conducted by Rights of Women, Women’s Aid and Welsh Women’s Aid revealed that since the cuts 50% of survivors of domestic violence cannot access legal aid due to a lack of evidence and 60% of women took no legal action as a direct result of not being eligible for legal aid. Only a lucky few are able to get solicitors to assist on a pro bono basis. Alternatively women are falling into debt trying to raise the funds to pay legal fees. Many however are either having to continue facing the abusive behaviour or are being dragged into courts by their abusive ex-partners who use the court systems to continue to perpetrate their abuse and harassment.
We have seen the unfortunate closure of law centres and funding cuts to citizen advice bureaus. Legal aid law firms have been facing cuts in hourly rates for many years. We have seen politicians and the media attack these lawyers portraying them as “fat cats” lining their pockets with state money. What I have seen in reality are overworked and underpaid lawyers who do this work to ensure all those who are vulnerable within society have access to justice. Unfortunately after the most recent and brutal cuts it is becoming extremely difficult for legal aid firms to survive. We have seen law firms close down legal aid departments. My growing concern is that it will become harder and harder to find good quality firms providing legal aid.
We find ourselves in a difficult position since the cuts which deny women the opportunity to exercise their human rights. Legal aid is a pillar of the welfare state and access to justice should be provided by the state not the third sector. Nevertheless women still need to be supported and we need to ensure that the state does not forget its duty to protect these women.
The work of Rights of Women is therefore as important now as it ever was. The advice lines and wealth of information available on the website is essential to assisting thousands of women to understand the law and their legal rights. Rights of Women is also a great source of knowledge for other professionals who support survivors of domestic violence via the training programmes and information available on the website. Last but not least Rights of Women is valuable to progressing campaigns and legal challenges on behalf of the larger client base of the women’s sector. Just as the team has been doing in progressing the legal challenge against the legal aid cuts.